In Parliament – June

I spent some time during June contributing to the Finance Bill Committee, which scrutinises the Finance Bill, here.

Pensions Bill – Work and Pensions – 17th June 2013

Nigel Mills MP: Small pots cannot currently be transferred to the National Employment Savings Trust. Can the Secretary of State update the House on the Government’s plans to change that? I cannot see any such plans in the Bill, so might they appear at a later stage?

Iain Duncan Smith (Secretary of State, Work and Pensions; Chingford and Woodford Green, Conservative): This is obviously Second Reading, but we will have further discussions on that subject. We know that it needs addressing and my hon. Friend the Minister of State is already aware of that. Although we will not cover it on Second Reading, we will, I suspect, tackle it during the passage of the Bill. If my hon. Friend Nigel Mills wants to be on the Committee, now is the time to volunteer. Volunteering in this place is always dangerous, but, none the less, I urge him to do that.Even with auto-enrolment, it is critical that people understand what they get from the state and are able to save with some confidence. I recognise that that is the biggest area, and it is what the single-tier pension is all about. Auto-enrolment on its own without single tier would be difficult, but single tier underpins auto-enrolment, making it all the more important. The single tier will be all about setting a basic level of pension above the means test.

Let me give an illustrative example: 2012-13 prices would mean a single tier of £144 a week, a basic state pension of £107 and pension credit of £142. Under single tier, every individual would therefore qualify for a pension in their own right. The full rate payable for 35 years of national insurance contribution—the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has made the point about contributing to one’s future wealth—reflects that we are combining both the basic pension, based on contributions for more than 30 years, and the state second pension, based on 49 or 50 years of contributions. We are merging the two together. Yet even as we abolish the whole complicated system of the additional state pension on the one hand and contracting out on the other, we will still recognise people’s existing contributions. This is an important matter which has been raised with us a number of times. For example, someone who reaches state pension age in 2016 under single tier who is due £160 under the current system in whatever form will still get that pension of £160, so it is locked in.

Workers who were contracted out at implementation will start to pay full national insurance contributions, as 70% of those who are in work already do. In return, we believe they can build towards a pension at full single rate. Rather than today’s much lower basic state pension, they will get a reward for that effort to save, as I said earlier, referencing the already existing auto-enrolment. As a result, the vast majority, some 90% in the first two decades, will receive enough extra over their retirement through a single-tier pension to more than offset the higher contributions. Let us take a 40-year-old in 2016

contributing an extra £6,000 of national insurance before reaching state pension age in 2043. Over their retirement they would receive £24,000 more in state pension—a net gain of £18,000. That is the point that I was trying to illustrate earlier.

We must honour the past and deal with its complexity. That is the key. Going forward, whether previously contracted out or not, people will become entitled to the single-tier pension in the same way. This is an important feature.

Nigel Mills MP: I note the points the right hon. Gentleman is making, and I can see that they have some sense. Does he recognise that a low-earning, self-employed person on £10,000 a year would be paying more national insurance than an employed person who is being paid £10,000? The position is not quite as simple as he is making out.

Liam Byrne MP (Birmingham Hodge Hill, Labour): The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. My chief concern in this debate on principles is for the long-term bargain to be put on a secure footing. It would be wrong to lead the self-employed up the proverbial garden path by offering a great deal, clapping everyone on the back and voting it through only to see it collapse because it is literally too good to be true.

The final point on which we will press the Secretary of State during the passage of the Bill is probably the most important issue that our constituents will put to us: will the new flat rate pension offer them a comfortable retirement after they have worked so hard for so long? We are concerned that parts of the Bill fail that basic comfort test. Let us be clear that the hard wind-up of the state second pension will create a notional loss for many people under the age of 59. For example, 190,000 people in their 50s could lose between £30 and £35 a week, compared with what they would have got if S2P stayed in place. Someone who has been contracted-in for all of their working life and is aged 55 when the pension is introduced, would in theory have been able to accrue additional state pension for the remaining 11 years of their working life, amounting to £24 a week in additional state pension. That will no longer be possible under the single tier. They will continue to contribute 12% NICs for the rest of their working life, but there will not be an additional S2P entitlement.

The situation is even more grave for those who are just starting work: those in their 20s who will not retire until after 2060. By the Department for Work and Pensions’ own calculations, the majority of them will have lower pensions under the single-tier system, as the income replacement rate will fall from 38% to just 30%—a big drop that points us to the gaping hole where reform of the private pension system should be.

The Government have been clear, as they rehearsed the arguments in the past year, that they want personal accounts to pick up some of the slack for the fall in income replacement rate. There was a degree of consensus on the auto-enrolment system that the Government are now taking forward. We are concerned that the measures to link membership of auto-enrolment to the personal allowance mean that too few people will be involved in the new personal accounts, and that not enough people will be saving for the future.

We are also concerned that the effective shut down of S2P means that workers now lack a state-backed, low-risk option in which to save, which is why we think that now is the time to remove many of the fetters and constraints that were initially constructed for National Employment Savings Trust, the national pensions mutual created under the Pensions Act 2007. We need to allow transfers in from other schemes, end the upper ceilings on contributions—this is what employers are telling us—and legislate harder for transparency on costs and charges, which is why we have called for an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading into workplace pensions. We want to see a simple and comprehensive declaration of

the costs of saving in a pension, so that savers can see precisely what is being taken away from them and the long-term impact on the size of their pension pot.

We are concerned that there is a structural problem that needs to be grasped: the fractured and small-scale nature of the offer for many pension savers. Too few funds have the scale to offer savers the best investment decisions or the lowest charges. The Government must look much harder at how to foster an industry of bigger, simpler and cheaper funds.

We can learn many lessons from countries such as Australia, particularly on the establishment of a low-cost default pension fund; trustee directors for every pension scheme with statutory duties to work in the interests of savers; and requirements to publish a detailed charging structure and past performance to ensure transparency. To deliver this kind of industry for the future, we should be considering a legal requirement that all pension schemes prioritise the interests of savers over those of shareholders. We should also be considering obligations on trustees to assess whether schemes have sufficient scale to deliver low costs, and if the assessment is that a scheme is too small to deliver this, trustees should be empowered to investigate merging with other schemes. Finally, we should consider whether regulators should be empowered to mandate small schemes to merge, as is done in Australia.

In conclusion, the Opposition have always believed that matters as serious as those in the Bill should be approached in a spirit of national consensus, and I say again that I am grateful to the Secretary of State for how he has approached the debate, but the House must ask whether the new pensions provision is sustainable, comfortable and genuinely universal. I am afraid that we believe the answers are no, no and no again. We agree on some of the principles, but now is not the time for a failure of nerve; this is half a Bill, half a reform, and as the Bill goes through the House, I urge him to be more radical, to build on his inheritance and to give us a long-term scheme that will deliver a better standard of living for pensioners who have worked so hard for so long.

Nigel Mills MP: It is a pleasure to be called in this debate and to welcome this much-needed reform. I served on the Work and Pensions Select Committee when we conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, so I have already gone through the detail once. The Secretary of State issued an open invitation to Members to serve on the Bill Committee, and I sense that I might be so honoured.

Steve Webb MP (Minister of State (Pensions), Work and Pensions; Thornbury and Yate, Liberal Democrat): [Indicated assent]

Nigel Mills MP: It is unusual for Ministers to welcome that, given my record of moving amendments, so the Minister might want to be a little careful, before he gets too excited. [Interruption.] Yes, it might spare me.

We all share the Government’s vision for pension reform. We want predictable, non-means-tested state pension provision, so we know roughly what we will receive when we retire; then we want to encourage private saving in high-quality, fair, low-cost schemes and to know what we will get for our money when we pay into such schemes and how that will convert into retirement income when we reach retirement age, whatever

that might be—being 38, I dread to think what mine will be: I suspect it might begin with a 7, which seems an awfully long way off.

The Bill addresses some of those aspirations—it will make it much clearer what state pension some will get when they reach the happy age and improve the private pensions system—but will do nothing to improve the final part of the journey and make it clear what will happen when someone reaches that happy retirement age and is told they need to convert their pension pot into a pension income. There remains a big weakness in the system around how fair a deal someone gets when they default into the annuity their pension provider offers them—that was something the Select Committee raised in our pensions governance report. Action is needed. In my view, we should not allow a pension provider to provide an annuity to the same customer. That might be too radical a market restriction for most people, but there is a real problem if people, having saved for years, see their retirement income reduced because they do not know that they can shop around and choose their annuity.

The Bill is clear that people who will retire a good few years after 2016 will get £143 plus indexation, whatever that is, but it is less clear for those retiring in 2016 or the first few years thereafter. For them, there is a complicated calculation involving what they built up under the current scheme and how that is added to under the new one. We need to educate people about what pension they will get and what the change means. In my surgeries, I hear many concerns and fears from people who thought this was some kind of big bang—that if they retired on the new date, they would get a much bigger state pension than those retiring the day before—and did not want to miss the start date. I suspect that for many people the difference will not be huge, however, so those concerns should not be there.

Madeleine Moon MP (Bridgend, Labour): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has been honest in saying that his retirement is some way off, but many people—especially women—who thought they were approaching their retirement have now been told they must work extra years and pay more in, without feeling that they will get an awful lot extra out of it? We have to acknowledge that there will be losers. Does he agree?

Nigel Mills MP: I think we recognise that in any change some people will lose out—it was particularly difficult to explain that point to those women whose retirement age increased at the start of this Parliament—but sadly these things are necessary in our financial situation.

 Ian Swales MP (Redcar, Liberal Democrat): I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s expertise on these issues. Does he agree that we have a big job to do on communication, not just around the new flat-rate pension, but around how various groups will be affected? For example, MPs are already getting representations from existing pensioners who feel that the new arrangements are unfair on them. Communication is key.
Nigel Mills MP: I agree wholeheartedly. I think we have all had people come to us with calculations saying, “What will I get under this new pension? What would I have got?” When trying to talk them through it, there is an especial problem with people who do not understandthat those who have contracted out for most of their working life will not get the full £143. They think a bonus is coming—that they will be £35 a week better off—whereas they might just miss out. We need to write to people before the change, saying, “Here’s what you’ve accrued”, “Here’s what will happen after the change”, “It looks like you’ll get your full £143 a week”, “It look like you won’t get the full £143 a week”, “Here’s what you can do”, “Are you due any credits for periods spent caring for children or other things?”, “Have you missed any years’ contributions?” We have to communicate all that clearly so that people have the information in time to make those decisions.

Anne Begg MP (Aberdeen South, Labour): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are a remarkable number of people who do not know that they have been contracted out or qualify for credits through the home responsibilities protection and other things and that it will come as a surprise to them that they might have more credits than they had anticipated?

Nigel Mills MP: I absolutely agree. The system is so complicated that it is hard for any of us to know exactly what we are entitled to. It is scary when a constituent says to me, “You were on that Committee. Explain how this will work.” From my days as an accountant, I know how to write lots of caveats, so I e-mail them back saying “I think it might be this, but I’m not an adviser, I don’t know your actual circumstances,” and so on. Key to this reform being successful and retaining support, therefore, is how we tell people what they are entitled to, what they can do, what they need to do and when to do it by.There are some useful things in the Bill, including the tweaks to auto-enrolment, which I think we all welcome. It is right to cap consultancy fees for auto-enrolled schemes, because if the state is, if not quite forcing people into a savings system, certainly encouraging them strongly to do so—through the opt-out—the auto-enrolled scheme must be a fair and decent one, and that means not being ripped off by excessive charges. We should be saying, “This is the most you can charge people. You cannot add unnecessary and expensive consultancy fees”. Therefore, the provisions in the Bill are a welcome change, even to a free-market, non-regulatory person such as me. It is the right direction to head in.

The provisions on the transfer of dormant pots are also a step in the right direction. When starting to think what retirement might bring, one wants to know how much pension income has been accrued, but that can be hard. If someone has changed jobs a few times, they will have lots of small pots, which means they will get those strange, complicated documents once a year that they do not understand. Even if they read them, they will not be able to work out what income it will equate to in retirement. If those pots were moved into a single pot, they would get only one statement. If we made that information clear, they might find out that they have accrued only a third of what they want and that they need to take action several years before retirement.

That is a welcome step. I asked the Secretary of State earlier whether we could use this Bill to make changes to the National Employment Savings Trust so that those who choose to use the scheme or their employers

who use it can make those transfers. I am not quite sure what the situation will be for those who think they can transfer their pot but cannot, even though their employer might have chosen one of the best schemes out there. We need to get that clear in the system as soon as we can, so that people understand how that will happen. As the Bill proceeds in Committee and on Report, I hope those changes to NEST can be sneaked in, once the consultation ends. I suspect that some attempts to table amendments to that effect might be made in Committee, if the Government have not quite got there—not that I am saying I will draft them or am in any way qualified to achieve that, which I suspect is well outside my skills.

One issue leading on from auto-enrolment and NEST is the fact that the regulator responsible for auto-enrolment is the Pensions Regulator, yet most auto-enrolment is into contract-based defined contribution schemes, for which the Pensions Regulator has no responsibility. We are in a slightly strange situation, as everyone out there thinks, “There’s a Pensions Regulator,” yet most people’s pension schemes are probably not caught by it. They have no redress to that regulator and instead have to go to the Financial Services Authority, or the Financial Conduct Authority or whatever it is called now—the organisation that did such a good job with the banks that we entrusted it with pensions as well.

I am not entirely convinced that that is the right place, partly because when the FCA gave evidence to us, it did not seem to be giving pension schemes quite the focus that such an organisation ought to give them, as I suspect members of the Committee who were present would agree. There is real confusion out there about who does what in the pensions regulatory system. There is an attraction to having the role of supervising individual pension schemes all in one place—that place being the Pensions Regulator. I accept that the Minister recently replied to the Committee with some sensible reasons why he comes down on a different side of that line, but this issue is worth exploring, to ensure the right protections as more and more people move into contract-based defined contribution schemes, which is a hugely important sphere.

While we are on the Minister’s response to the Select Committee, may I welcome the fact that the start date for the change has made its way into the Bill? I questioned him quite strongly about that on the Committee, because this is a fundamental change to the pension that millions of people can expect, and to have the date slip by some accident or change of policy after the election would be hugely disadvantageous. If the date changes by even six months, that is six months’ worth for people who retired thinking they were getting £143, but who would then drop back into the old system. That would be disastrous, and all those women we have taken out would be dropped back in. I suspect that none of us would fancy that, so having the start date firmly in primary legislation in this Bill has to be right. I welcome the fact that the Minister listened, although I also hope that his power in the Bill to change the date by order is not one that he plans to use. I would have thought that the power should lapse—maybe in March 2015—so that it cannot be changed once we are a year from the start date. It would be awful if less than a year’s notice was given of a slip by six months or something like that.

We also welcome the fact that the Government listened and capped the minimum qualification period. We all accept that it is not right for our taxpayers to provide

pensions to people who had a short stay here or to spouses who have never come here and who, by the time they retire, have had 40 years in a different state and have a pension there. It is not right to give them a small state pension that we have to administer. It is right to say, “If you haven’t paid in for this number of years, then you get nothing.” For that period to be more than 10 years would have been unfair—someone who has paid into a system for 10 years probably deserves something back out. It is right that the Bill has a cap at 10 years and we will see whether the Government choose seven years, 10 years or somewhere in between as the process continues.

I have had a gentle canter through what is in the Bill and some of the things I might have liked to see in it to improve things for people paying into private pensions. I am sure we can explore those as the Bill proceeds.

I am reluctantly content with the idea of increasing the state pension age—I suspect that future Governments might be grateful for this one. However, some kind of mechanism should be put in place to force a review every Parliament or every five or six years to see what the decision has to be. Increasing the state pension age by another year will never be politically popular, as a few hundred thousand people will then be retiring later than they wanted to. However, it would be right and fair to have a transparent mechanism—or transparent-ish: it would only force a review, not be a real power—so that we said to people, “As life expectancy increases, we have to accept that you retire later, and we have to try to keep a sensibly fixed proportion of your life that you can expect to be in receipt of a pension.” If people can understand that principle—“This is the proportion of your life for which you will receive a state pension”—or if it is at least there for them to try to understand, that will be powerfully clear. Rather than suddenly saying, “Actually, we’ve got a big financial problem again; let’s make a change that no one was expecting,” let us set that within some kind of trend.

I welcome the Bill and look forward to it passing through this House. There are some questions about the detail that I am sure we will all want to understand, such as how precisely the calculations will be made, how people will know when they have been contracted out and where people who have been contracted out for part of their working lives will fall between £108 and £143. That will be difficult to understand, but it is important that the Government make that clear. There is clearly a huge role to play outside this place in making people understand what pension they will receive and what they can do about it, which will probably be more important than the debates we have in this place or the agonising over commas and full stops that is to come. I welcome the Bill and look forward to the chance to serve on the Public Bill Committee.