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Pensions (Expatriates)

12.30 pm

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): I welcome the debate and the opportunity to raise an issue of great concern to many British-born people who now live in Commonwealth countries. I have an interest in that I chair the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the subject has come to the attention of our executive committee. At a recent meeting of the British-Canadian parliamentary group, the Canadian high commissioner raised the issue with hon. Members and expressed his concerns. I recently had a long discussion with the Australian high commissioner on this subject.

In May last year, I asked a parliamentary question and I have with me today the reply given by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Social Security.The issue is clear cut. When United Kingdom citizens retire to certain Commonwealth countries they find that their state retirement pension is frozen at the rate it was when they left the UK. That happens in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. A system is in place in many other Commonwealth countries to enable British expatriates who receive their state retirement pension to benefit from any increases that may be made by the United Kingdom Government.

This is not a new issue. It has prevailed for many years. Early-day motions have been signed by many right hon. and hon. Members from all parties. A great number of questions have been asked on the matter. The problem is therefore very well known. It greatly angers retired people from the UK who now live in Commonwealth countries and who receive no uprating in the state retirement pension. No matter how long they may have worked in the UK or how many contributions they have made towards the cost of their state pension, no increases are paid.

There are organisations that represent United Kingdom pensioners in many Commonwealth countries. The Canadian Alliance of British Pensioners feels angry and badly let down by successive UK Governments and says:

All hon. Members will know about an organisation that works with retired people in the United Kingdom--the highly regarded Age Concern, which is currently campaigning to secure dignity and security for elderly people in the United Kingdom. People from the United Kingdom now living in Commonwealth countries where the state pension is never increased want precisely the same commitment. They want dignity and security in their retirement and they are absolutely right to expect it.

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This month sees pension increases of £5 per week for a single person, £8 for a married couple and a £200 winter fuel allowance. The decision to implement those increases was taken by the Government. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have played a major role in securing those measures, which are a step in the right direction and have been warmly welcomed on all sides of the House. Hon. Members contemplating doing away with them quickly changed their minds when they realised how popular they were with retired people in the United Kingdom.

It is easy to understand the deep concern of retired people in receipt of a state pension from the United Kingdom that will not be increased because they live in a particular Commonwealth country. How unfair and unjust that policy must seem. Under the present system, those people will never receive a pension rise simply because they have retired to a specific Commonwealth country. Had they retired to a different Commonwealth country, they would have received any and all pension increases introduced since they left the United Kingdom. For example, elderly people who have retired to Canada fail to receive pension increases, but those who have retired to the country next door--the United States--receive those increases.

About 138,000 pensioners from the United Kingdom currently live in Canada. In 1972 the United Kingdom proposed a new agreement with the Canadian Government under which pension increases could take place. The Canadian and UK Governments held discussions, so will the Minister tell us what went wrong with them? In a written answer to my question on 16 May last year--at column 120W in Hansard--I was told by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that 470,000 UK retired people living overseas did not receive any pension increase because their pensions were frozen when they left the UK.

The other Commonwealth country that is badly affected is Australia, where 215,000 UK pensioners now live. The Minister will be fully aware of the changes that were made last month by the Australian Government. Can he tell us what the effect of those changes will be on retired British citizens who are living in Australia or who may go to live there in future? I understand that there have been discussions with the Australian Government and the Department of Social Security. Will the Minister tell us about those discussions? Will the position of UK citizens living in Australia now or in the future be protected? There are 215,000 retired UK people living in Australia, so we can understand their interest and concern about the issue.

So far, I have spoken about Canada and Australia, but other Commonwealth countries have no uprating of pensions for retired people from the UK. Those countries are South Africa and New Zealand. We are not talking about large numbers of retired people from the UK compared with the figures for Canada and Australia, but numbers should not be the key factor. Retired people from the UK who contributed to their state retirement pensions have gone to live in Commonwealth countries and then found that their state pension had been frozen, so that they do not receive any increases made in the UK. I can well understand such people complaining about how unfair the system is, and my hon. Friend the Minister must recognise that it is hard to defend.

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Let us examine the countries in which UK citizens will receive UK increases in their state retirement pension. I have already mentioned the pleasure expressed by pensioners here at the increases of £5 and £8 that will apply from later this month. How popular those increases will be in places such as Bermuda, Cyprus, Jersey, Malta, Jamaica and Barbados; all are Commonwealth countries where state pensions are uprated when increases happen in the UK.

UK citizens who have gone to live in countries such as the United States, the Philippines, Turkey, Israel, or Switzerland--not one of them a Commonwealth country--will, in time, have any UK pension increase paid to them. How does the Minister think that UK citizens feel if they live in a country where there will be no uprating? I know that I would feel very bitter. The problem has continued under successive Governments who did not take the right decision. Hon. Members from all parties support the proposed changes because, like me, they believe that the existing system is unfair. If Members of Parliament had a free vote on the issue there would be massive support for changes to the present system, and no one, not even my hon. Friend the Minister, could say, "Oh, it could not be done." I accept that cost is a major issue, but it should not be used repeatedly as the reason for doing nothing and simply saying, "Oh, we know of the concerns in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but we can't change the system because of the cost involved." Governments can implement change and discuss with other Governments how new policies can be introduced. What discussions are the Government having with the Governments of the countries to which I referred?

As I said, I know from my role as chair of the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association that the high commissioners of Canada and Australia and many other people will follow the debate closely, especially the Minister's reply. Cost should not be the only concern; there is also the issue of fairness, and the present system is most unfair.

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) on securing the debate on such an important subject. He made his case very powerfully. As he said, the matter has been discussed by the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association; I know of the association's value as a point of contact between parliamentarians in this and other Commonwealth countries as I was a member of the CPA executive before I was given my present job by the Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend may be surprised that I am replying to the debate; I was asked to do so by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is in Committee considering the Social Security Fraud Bill.

As my hon. Friend knows, the issue has been discussed for many years. He has tabled several parliamentary questions on the matter and it was the subject of a short debate in January in the House of Lords. I am aware of the strength of feeling of many British pensioners overseas who have raised the issue over the years.

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Pensioners overseas have paid national insurance contributions; however, the money that an individual pays to the national insurance fund is not earmarked for that person and never has been. The national insurance system works on a pay-as-you-go basis and has done so ever since it was established. Contributions paid into the scheme in the past were paid out long ago to people who were entitled to pensions and benefits at that time.

The contribution rate paid in the past took account of the range of benefits payable at the time which, of course, did not generally include the uprating of pensions in all foreign countries. If the scheme had uprated pensions in all countries, the cost would have been higher and would not have been covered by the contributions.

Paying contributions has never given an automatic entitlement to benefits. The national insurance scheme is different from a commercial insurance scheme in which premiums are linked to expected benefits. Although national insurance contributions provide a foundation for calculating personal future benefit entitlement, the contributions do not actually pay for those benefits.

The agreement between the individual and the state is that the payment of contributions gives entitlement to a package of benefits subject to certain conditions. One condition is that retirement pension upratings are generally not payable abroad. That comes from the 1955 legislation, which provided for pensions to be paid abroad, but not for uprating.

The rate of national insurance contributions has never included an element for the indexation of pensions payable abroad, because the social security scheme is designed primarily for those living in the United Kingdom, and any uprating in the pension is designed to meet the cost of living here. Overseas pensions are annually uprated only if the pensioner lives in the European Economic Area or if we have a reciprocal agreement with another country that specifically provides for upratings. Over time, we have concluded agreements that allow for annual upratings with more than 30 countries. Bilateral social security agreements can be the means of providing for the uprating of UK pensions, but their function is mainly to provide co-ordination between social security schemes, so that workers moving between the UK and another country obtain a degree of cover for contributory benefits from one country to another. The costs of making such agreements are an important factor, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting will recognise.

UK pensions are payable anywhere in the world. We pay about 900,000 pensioners in more than 200 countries, but only about half of them receive annual cost of living increases. Elsewhere, retired people continue to receive their pensions at the rate that was payable when they left this country. Those who left the UK when they were younger receive a pension payable at the rate in force when they claim their state retirement pension.

My hon. Friend compared the situation in America with that in Canada and asked why different arrangements operate in respect of our retired pensioners in those countries. There is a historical explanation. In 1969, the UK made a social security agreement with the USA, which provided for future increases in UK state pensions and widows benefits to be

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received by UK pensioners living in the USA and for the USA to pay its retirement pension to American citizens living in the UK. It also pays upratings to those pensioners living in the UK.

Between 1969 and 1972, discussions about a reciprocal agreement took place between officials from the then Department of Health and Social Security and the Canadian authorities--on the DHSS's initiative. The UK proposed a comprehensive agreement with Canada and tried to persuade it to export its old-age security pension under such an agreement, but the Canadian Government were unable to agree. It seems that Canadian legislation precluded the inclusion of its old-age security pension in reciprocal agreements.

In 1977, Canadian legislation was amended to allow the making of reciprocal agreements involving the export of the Canadian old-age security pension, and Canada indicated its willingness to resume negotiations. At that time, however, UK Ministers decided that insufficient resources were available for increasing the rates of UK pension payable in Canada. There are, therefore, reasons why differences occur in social security agreements, for instance, the different histories of negotiations on an agreement with the USA and with Canada. More than 90 per cent. of those pensioners who do not receive upratings live in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Although we have social security agreements with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, they do not provide for upratings.

My hon. Friend asked about the effects on UK citizens of Australia's decision unilaterally to revoke its social security agreement with us. The agreement helped people who went from this country to live in Australia to satisfy the 10-year residence test for the Australian retirement pension, which is called an age pension. An age pension is means-tested, so a person receives it only if his or her income is below a certain level. It is not like our basic state pension, which is a universal pension. Therefore, the amount of age pension that a Briton retiring in Australia receives depends on his or her financial circumstances. As a result of Australia's termination of the agreement, people who go to Australia after the end of the agreement will, because of its 10-year residence rule, have to wait 10 years before they can get any Australian pension. The Australian Government have estimated that in the first year around 850 people living in Australia will be affected by the termination of the agreement. Those who benefited from it before its termination will continue to do so. However, people who leave Australia to live in the UK

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before reaching pension age cannot get Australia's age pension because, unlike our pension, it is based on a residence requirement.

The British Government are protecting people in the UK who lived in Australia when the agreement was in force by continuing to allow residence in Australia to count towards a basic pension. To unfreeze pensions entirely in all four Commonwealth countries would cost about £310 million in 2001-02, an increase of more than 20 per cent. on current expenditure on overseas pensions. To pay future cost of living increases in those countries alone would cost around £30 million in the current year, rising each year until all pensioners in those countries were paid the full UK rates and eventually reaching a similar cost of more than £300 million a year. The principal difficulty in extending the payment of pension uprating abroad is the cost of doing so. This year the Government will spend about £1,410 million on payments to pensioners living abroad and if, from this month, all pensioners living abroad were paid at the same level as pensioners in this country, the figure would rise to around £1,740 million, an increase of more than 20 per cent. or around £330 million.

There are huge demands on the UK social security budget and there are many unmet needs. The Government have to make choices about priorities. Our priority is to spend any available resources on pensioners in this country, concentrating on the poorest. We have made a start, but there is still much to do to relieve pensioner poverty. It is sometimes argued that the cost of pensions uprating should be offset by the saving to public services here, in particular the national health service, which pensioners overseas do not use. However, we do not know what calls such pensioners might make on the national health service; many of them went abroad long before reaching retirement age and so for many years did not contribute towards health service costs. To pay them uprated pensions would still constitute a major cost.

As I said earlier, the issue of pension uprating has periodically been bought to the Government's attention, as it was brought to the previous Government's--as my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting acknowledged. However, successive Governments have followed the same policy since the regulations were introduced in 1955. I understand and have sympathy with the arguments in favour of a change in policy, but we cannot disregard the huge cost involved. Therefore, I cannot hold out any prospect of adding to social security expenditure by increasing our spending on pensions overseas. As I said, our priority must remain to spending available resources on pensioners in this country, particularly the poorest.

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