1.43 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in this Backbench Business Committee debate. I commend the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) for her opening remarks and pay tribute to the WASPI campaign, particularly to Marion and Anne and all the other ladies who helped campaign on this important issue. I have worked long and hard with them over the past few months. We have had meetings with my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds). I lobbied my constituents with the WASPI group in Morrisons in Denton recently and I think that I was the first in this Parliament to raise the issue at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I am therefore glad that the subject has been brought to the Floor of the House for a full debate.

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A very real injustice has been done to this group of women born in the 1950s. We can go through the history again: there have been two changes to their state pension age and, if that were not bad enough, the real injustice has been the acceleration of the process, which has left many women who were not expecting the changes having to make alternative arrangements. When it came to the private pensions of Members of Parliament, those within 10 years of their normal state pension age could remain on the old scheme, but the group of women we are considering have had no chance to put in place their alternative arrangements.

Barbara Keeley: Government Members have asked Opposition Members for our transitional arrangement suggestions. I made some. I gave examples from other countries: some have bridge pensions while others look after people who are made redundant. It is up to the Government, who have made the £30 billion pension grab, to come up with ideas.

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend is right. When the Pensions Act 2011 was debated in the House of the Commons, the current Secretary of State said,

“but we will consider transitional arrangements.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 52.]

Where are they? Those ladies are still waiting. It is about time the Secretary of State came to the Dispatch Box and set out those transitional arrangements, because those women cannot wait forever.

We have already had the first U-turn from the former Pensions Minister, who said that he was not properly briefed. That says a lot about the calibre of Liberal Democrat Ministers in the former coalition Government. Now we have a Pensions Minister in the other place, who was a champion for those ladies until she took the Queen’s shilling. She now says that she cannot do anything about it. What utter nonsense. What is the point of having a Minister if she cannot do anything about it? It is time that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions got off their backsides and did something to help those women.

Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), I will give the Minister some friendly advice. I appreciate that it is not his area of responsibility but that of the noble Lady at the other end of the building who speaks on pensions. My hon. Friend likened the WASPI ladies to wasps. Wasps can be pests and nuisances. They cannot easily be bashed away and, when that happens, they get angry and come back. If they are really annoyed, they sting and, unlike bees, they can sting more than once. Let us have some justice for these ladies; it is long overdue.

1.47 pm

Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on bringing this debate to the House through the Backbench Business Committee, and on opening it so powerfully.

From my experience of meeting my constituents at surgeries, I have learned of women affected by this cack-handed change by the Government who are living in damp housing, unable to afford the necessary housing repairs, and I have heard harrowing stories of marriages breaking up due to the financial pressures forced on them through no fault of their own.

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During my research on the issue, I met WASPI and I thank them for not only meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), but for their tireless work in campaigning to right this injustice. WASPI has expressed several concerns about the implementation of the 1995 and 2011 Pensions Acts, mainly, although not exclusively, about communication and timescales.

Drew Hendry: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is ridiculous that women should have such short notice, or no notice? One of my constituents found out that she had an extra six years to wait not through a letter from the Government but from her insurance salesman.

Gavin Newlands: I could not agree more. I have received an email in the past hour from a constituent who turned 60 in March and was not aware of the changes and is coming to meet me tomorrow at a surgery. The problem is still going on.

My shorter contribution to the debate will centre on fairness. I believe that it is fair that both sexes will receive their state pension at the same age, but the rapid rise in the age of eligibility for the state pension has been unfair for hard-working men and women who have paid into a system all their lives in good faith.

Patricia Gibson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes to the state pension mean that women are finding out that retirement is four, five and six years further away than they thought and that that not only leads to financial difficulties but is cruel and heartless? It happens in the context of a lifetime of low pay and inequality faced by far too many women.

Gavin Newlands: I am pleased my hon. Friend has made that point for me. Given the time limit, I had to delete that section of my speech.

Hard-working men and women have paid into the system expecting, in good faith, the state to help to support their retirement. The combination of equalisation and increasing the pension age has been devastating for some women.

As I have said, WASPI has no problems with the principle of the policy; rather, it has problems with its implementation. These rapid and rushed changes have had a significant impact on a large group of women: 2.6 million women, if we accept the Department for Work and Pensions estimates. The changes have meant that some women may have to wait an additional six years to receive a state pension. From the first day of their working lives, these women have been advised to plan accordingly. At the very last minute, the Government have altered the plans that these women have had for years. This, in essence, is why the women affected feel deeply aggrieved and betrayed by the actions of subsequent Governments.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in answer to my written question on the communication of the changes to the pension age entitlement, replied that the DWP wrote to all individuals directly affected to inform them of the changes to their state pension age. However, from speaking to WASPI and local constituents this does not appear to have happened on the scale or to the degree that the Secretary of State indicated. I have spoken with women affected. They have said they received the DWP letter far too late, with only a few months’

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notice of the increase in the pension age. I have also heard of letters sent to wrong addresses. In one case, unfortunately, a constituent who came to my surgery—another is coming in tomorrow—had no knowledge whatever of the changes.

It has come to light that the UK Government informed a large number of women affected only 14 years after the changes were made.

Alison Thewliss: Does my hon. Friend agree that there has almost been some maladministration? I have just heard from my constituent, Susan Casey, who received a letter when she turned 50 to say that her retirement age would be in 2014. She was born in 1954. It is most unfair not only that she has been losing out, but that she has been misinformed.

Gavin Newlands: Absolutely. This seems to have happened to a whole a catalogue of women. It is an absolute disgrace.

We encourage individuals to plan for the future, but if during their working lives the Government make changes to the state pension, it is only appropriate and fair that the Government communicate them adequately to allow people to re-plan financially for their retirement. I phoned one of my constituents yesterday and asked her how she would like the Government to respond to this issue. Her request was simple: she wants the Government to accept that they made a mistake with how hard and how fast the changes were introduced. That should not be a difficult concession for the Government to make, as the previous Pensions Minister himself has already accepted that mistakes were made.

It is important for the Government to learn from the mistakes they have made and to review how the changes were introduced. We need clearer channels of communication between the DWP and individuals when it comes to pensions. I hear all too often that the information the DWP sends out is confusing and unclear. I would ask that the current Government sit down with WASPI and consider ameliorating some of the financial stress that the changes have brought, and perhaps extend the timeframe.

We know the problem. We cannot sit idly by and allow cack-handed policy implementation from subsequent UK Governments to devastate the lives of so many people who have worked so hard for so long. The Government cannot shirk their obligations. They must accept responsibility, apologise and correct this as a matter of urgency. Ignorance will simply not suffice.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): I just remind hon. Members that nine more people wish to catch my eye and we need to start wind-ups at a quarter past 2. If people insist on taking more interventions, as they are doing, there will be those who will not be called to speak. With that in mind, I call Philippa Whitford.

1.53 pm

Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP): A lot of the issues have already been covered. The issue of equalisation is totally accepted, but in response to a Government Member who is no longer in his place I should say that we did point out that the life expectancy increase is not equal. In parts of Scotland we have huge

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differences in life expectancy, which relates to wealth, in particular. Women who are lower paid, who are unlikely to have a decent pension, who have no chance of having any other kind of pension are exactly the ones who do not get this extended life expectancy.

We also heard from a Government Member that women were definitely written to and that maybe they chose to ignore it. However, we know from FOI 3231 that the information campaign was from 2009 to 2013; in other words, 14 years later. I am sad to challenge Labour Members, but the DWP in 2004, under a Labour Government, recognised from its survey that only 46% of women knew what was coming. For most of these women it is not an extension of a year or 18 months; it is literally a change from 60 to 66.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): One of my constituents from Strathaven contacted me this week to say that she had only heard about the changes through word of mouth and a web search. At 59, the Government website suggested she could retire at 62. That was then changed and put up to 64-and-a-half. The changes are unfair because they penalise people at the latter stages, when they cannot make alternative arrangements.

Dr Whitford: We have heard from right across the Chamber about the lack of communication and the acceleration of the age extension, and the fact that women could do nothing about it. This is built on a generation of women who had a lifetime of poor pay. We need to think about that going forward.

Auto-enrolment does not cover the modern worker who has multiple mini-jobs, as they are called. Their combined earnings are not considered. We will therefore have another pension debate in another 30 years about the people who have been left with no pension because of current approaches to work. We know that the derived pension benefit from their husbands is not counted. We know that only 22% of women who retire this year will qualify for the full flat-rate pension. This is just unacceptable. We are talking about women who are often unemployed at 60. They are facing jobseeker’s allowance and multiple job applications. They do not qualify for free transport here in England, free prescriptions or any other benefits, such as cold weather fuel payments. For these women, this is a multiple and accelerating problem.

We have been asked by those on the Government Benches—they are now horrifically empty for such an important debate—to come up with a solution. I understand that HMRC is looking at the higher rate of pension relief, which may claw back £45 billion. That more than covers the £30 billion, which we are told would cover full transitional arrangements. High level tax relief is for the wealthiest people, those who this week, the first proper working week of the year, have already earned more than the average wage. Three-quarters of them are men. The route we should be following is to take away money that goes to people who probably, despite their long life expectancy, will not live long enough to spend it, and share it more equally with women who have been very badly treated. This is an issue of fairness and the Government have a responsibility to deal with it.

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1.57 pm

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on bringing this important issue to the House today and thank her for articulating this inequality so passionately. I am glad that Women Against State Pension Inequality is holding us to account, in spite of the problems I understand it has had in reaching some MPs.

This is a concern for millions of people across the UK, one that continues to gain momentum as the impact on women’s lives looms larger. It is important to stress that Plaid Cymru supports the principle of equalising the state pension age. I note that Lloyd George, who brought in the original state pension, represented part of my constituency.

There is no reason why a woman should be expected to retire earlier than a man. Originally, it was put in place to reflect the age at which husbands retired and the discrepancy between the ages of husbands and their wives. That is not appropriate in an age of modern equality.

I speak today in opposition not to the purpose of equalisation but to the process of doing so. The accelerated timetable simply does not give women sufficient time to prepare for retirement.

I want to concentrate on the situation in Wales. The Government claim to be making the changes in response to an increase in life expectancy, but both life experience and life expectancy vary significantly depending on which part of the UK we look at. Unfortunately, this means that Wales will be hit particularly hard by the changes. For example, a new-born baby could expect to live to the age of 87 in parts of England, but just 76 in parts of Wales. At 71.4% of the UK average, income per head in Wales is the lowest in all the UK nations and regions. The average gross salary for a Welshman is £25,200, but a woman in Wales earns on average just £20,500—a fact that this Government and the Welsh Government should be ashamed of.

I reiterate that Plaid Cymru welcomes the equal treatment of women with regard to the state pension age, but this also requires the equal treatment of women in other spheres, such as the workplace, earnings and life opportunities. The UK Government are keen to push ahead with the former as a way to cut social protection budgets, but they are doing precious little fully to secure the latter. I urge the Government to phase in the equalisation of the state pension age over a longer timeframe to give women nearing retirement adequate time to prepare. The current timeframe is too fast and will cause undue hardship. These women cannot go back and live their lives again, and they deserve better treatment from the Government. I urge them to rethink. In a case of such fundamental inequality, and given that these people vote, none of us can afford not to consider this matter in detail and to end this inequality.

2 pm

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on introducing this important motion. The hon. Lady spoke with passion and force and characterised the problem

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facing many women born in the 1950s throughout Britain and Northern Ireland who are now faced with decisions they did not think they would have to make in such an accelerated fashion. Many of them are in receipt of, or have been in receipt of, low pay and undertake onerous and strenuous jobs in caring professions—for example, as nurses or home helps providing care within their own families to ageing parents. This places an additional strain on their health, yet, despite that burden, they will, because of this pensions ordeal, have to work for longer and for a smaller pension.

Women in my constituency, many of whom are associated with the WASPI campaign, which I congratulate, will be affected by these changes, because of the mirror legislation passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The equalisation of the state pension age is, in principle, to be welcomed, but it would be better if this symbol of gender equality was accompanied by transitional protections to ensure that women do not lose out. I recognise that, as life expectancy increases and many people stay in education longer before entering employment, the pension system must adapt. However, women in lower-paid work—home helps and carers, for example—and more physically straining jobs might not necessarily enjoy such an increase in life expectancy, yet they are the people likely to suffer most as a result of these changes, without being given adequate time to prepare.

That injustice and unfairness is the issue the Government need to address now. The previous coalition Government failed to recognise it, and instead wanted ordinary women to pay for a financial crisis they had nothing to do with. The responsibility for it should not lie at the door of women born in the early 1950s, yet they will be expected to work for longer and for a smaller pension than that which they had expected and planned for. They did not plan for this because they did not realise it was happening.

2.4 pm

Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on securing this important debate.

No one today has disagreed with the concept of equalisation. To bring the pension age for men and women into line promotes the sort of gender equality I have campaigned for, but the way the changes have been implemented amounts to an injustice for women, in the form of a faster roll-out than promised; little or no notice of changes; and no time for women to make alternate arrangements.

Drew Hendry: Is this not the 10th major change in these women’s working lifetimes and by far the worst and the one that impacts on them the most?

Angela Crawley: Absolutely. If there had been more women in the House over the years, perhaps those changes would not have taken place.

Many women expecting to start drawing their state pensions only found out in 2011 that they would face a delay. I acknowledge the hard work of WASPI and its vociferous approach to ensuring the matter is addressed. These women have experienced at first hand the consequences of the Government’s failure to provide timely and appropriate communication when implementing significant policy changes. The facts are simple: these

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women were not given sufficient notice. In fact, the Government did not actively inform any women for 14 years. That is simply not sufficient. The Work and Pensions Select Committee suggested 10 years, and even the Chancellor acknowledged in the spending review that 10 years’ notice must be given in the future. To me, that sounds like an admission of guilt and something the Government must address. They know they have short-changed these women and that they must take action. They must now face up to that truth.

In my time as an MP, I have been contacted by many female constituents. I was contacted by a lady from Carnwath who was born in 1956 and began working for the local council in 1978. The age of retirement impacted on her choice of career and mortgage. She could have been better prepared for her retirement had she been given adequate notice. Another constituent told me she had worked for the NHS for 42 years and had retired last May. With one year’s notice, she was informed that she would no longer receive the state pension, and she has since taken on part-time employment to fill the gap. That is simply unacceptable.

Similar themes have emerged in all my conversations with constituents: women working hard and earning less than men but still not having their contribution to society recognised by the Government. I am sure that many of my colleagues on the Women and Equalities Committee, who would have been here today had it not been for a Committee visit, would have echoed the same sentiments from the Conservative Benches. Sadly, their colleagues have failed them in that regard. I must also highlight the submissions to the Committee’s inquiry into the long-term effect of the gender pay gap and the impact of low-paid work on women.

Such sentiments are echoed throughout all constituencies across the country. There are women in every constituency who have signed the petition calling on the Government to take action. The way the changes have been implemented is unfair. The women affected have spent years paying into the system and rightly expect that to see them through to their retirement. We owe it to them to make fair transitional state pension arrangements for women born in and after the 1950s. I hope the Government will heed these remarks.

2.8 pm

Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab): I want briefly to talk about the situation of two women who have contacted me. The first was born in July 1953 and expected to retire at 60. This initially increased to 62 years and three months. She had no problem with that because she had been given plenty of notice and agreed with the gradual move towards equality of retirement age for men and women. Then, of course, with no warning, the retirement age was increased, so she now has to wait until she is 64 before she gets her higher state pension. The injustice is in the way it has been done—on a sliding scale—which means that some people in her class at school will get their pensions almost two years before her, despite their having worked for the same length of time and the same number of pension years. My constituent is still working but says she is fortunate because she has a good civil service pension. She is deeply concerned, however, that many other women rely on their state pension and now find they have to wait for many more years to get it, as discussed this afternoon.

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Another constituent of mine is in that unfortunate position. She worked for 20 years as a secretary, and although the male workers in the company were automatically enrolled in the company pension scheme, women were not. It was very different for women in those days. My constituent has arthritis and is continuing to work as a cleaner because she simply cannot afford not to. She also agrees with pension reform to equalise the retirement age. That is not a problem for women; it is the way it is being done that is so very upsetting. Younger women have had to time to adjust to, and plan for, these retirement dates and the changes. Women such as my constituent, however, do not have that opportunity.

I am willing to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps they did not understand just how many women would be affected. I can accept that, but what I cannot get my head around is why they are refusing to look at it again. To me, this is simply callous. You know so many women are being affected; you could look again; you could listen; you could change things—[Interruption.] Apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I ask the Government to look again at the people who have been disproportionately affected. They should listen to what those people are saying and get up and do something to help.

2.10 pm

Roger Mullin (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (SNP): Happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker, although the people I really hope have a happy one are the women who have been suffering under this injustice for too long.

On 20 June 2011, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions advised MPs during a debate on the Pensions Act 2011 that he would be considering “transitional arrangements” to provide assistance to the worst-affected women, yet later that year, only completely inadequate transitional arrangements were accepted. In the same 2011 debate, the Hansard record reveals that although concern was expressed by many Members, the extent of the problems, not least the lack of effective communications, support and the transition, was not as well understood as, thanks to the WASPI ladies, it is today.

Today gives us an opportunity to begin to set the record straight and to give the Government the chance to right a wrong. Much more recently, on 24 January 2014, Ros Altmann, now the ennobled Baroness who has become the pensions Minister wrote:

“Women in their late fifties or more today have been the most disadvantaged by the UK pension system”,

and she also pointed out:

“For years, women have been the second class citizens in both state and private pensions. This particularly affects women already in their late 50s...Women…typically…earn less than men when they are working, once again leaving them with less chance to save for a pension and leaving them with lower state pensions as they lose out on the earnings-related element of the system.”

Let us recall, too, that women born in the 1950s did not have the same breadth of employment opportunity as men. In the early years of employment, it was still legal to ban women from joining private pension schemes if they married or worked part time. Women were

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encouraged to pay the married women’s stamp, which meant they accrued no state pension rights at all, and the state pension system did not credit them if they worked full time raising a family. In other words, the pension system was designed by men, for men.

Thousands of women are now struggling to fill the gap before they have access to their state pension, and no adequate impact assessment has been undertaken by the Government. They have simply left these women to get on with it. Some are planning to use up what savings they have, and others who may have very small private pension pots are choosing to pull them all down to help fill a gap that is the creation of this Government. The Government must act.

2.14 pm

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): I want to pay tribute to the WASPI campaigning group, a group of non-political women who have come together to demonstrate and raise awareness of the serious issues involved. They had to resort to freedom-of-information requests to hold Government Departments to account, and these demonstrated the lack of communication about the Pensions Act 1995. What that group said, what we have heard today and what we hear from our constituents is how the combination of the 1995 and 2011 Pensions Acts is shattering people’s lives.

Some women have spent their whole lives planning to retire at 60 and they now find that they might have to work an extra five or six years. Nobody here can imagine the impact and the stress that this could wreak on family life. Some women have already retired on the basis that they would have enough income to get by until they reached what they thought was going to be the state pension age of 60. These include women who have been out of the workplace for up to five years and now find themselves in the position of having to find employment again. This is difficult enough when they have been out of the workplace, but it is further compounded by the austerity measures in the public sector. Some of these women had financial advisers and took early retirement, but their advisers did not tell them about the impact of the 1995 Act.

One of my constituents was made redundant from the civil service, which allowed her to care for her husband, who has now sadly passed away. Now she has discovered that she needs to get back in the workplace for a further five years. How is she going to do that at the age of 60, bearing in mind that only 34% of women in the 60 to 64 age range are economically active? Another constituent has been lucky enough to get back into work, but she feels that having to pay national insurance again while she is working these extra years rubs salt in the wounds. Another constituent, Jan Buchanan, simply says she has been robbed of over £30,000.

Another aspect of the excellent information gathered by the WASPI group is its submission and recommendations on how the Government should communicate with people in future about their pensions and how to make financial information and its impact clearer. I recommend that the Government take that on board.

We have heard that the previous Pensions Minister now admits that acceleration in 2011 was a mistake, but he has taken the easy option of blaming the civil service and the Tories. I do not think that is acceptable either. Two months ago, the Chancellor found £27 billion

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pounds and as we have already heard, money could be found for bombing Syria and £5 billion has already been wasted on the development of the future Trident programme.

This Government continue to tell us that they take pride in being able to take tough decisions. We will give them an open goal and an easy decision—they should change their minds on the transitional arrangements and help these people whose lives have potentially been ruined.

2.17 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, and I shall put forward a viewpoint that expresses the concerns that many Members have already raised. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on setting the scene so passionately and in such a well-focused manner.

A large group of women born in the mid-1950s have had their entitlement to a state pension fundamentally altered by the last Government. Instead of being entitled to their state pension at 60 as they had expected and planned for during their entire life, they now do not qualify at all until the age of 66. Equalising the state pension age is a good move for gender equality in the long term, but in common with many other Members, I have been inundated with messages from constituents who are concerned that their whole life’s plans are going to be thrown up in the air by these unplanned and unexpected changes.

The Office for National Statistics has released research showing that women born in 2064 can expect to live for 100 years. That statement shows that the long-term reform of the pension age is necessary, and statistics on issues other than our ageing population also reinforce that. However, thousands of women across my constituency will be affected by these changes and the publicising of their impact has not been adequate. Thousands of women might not even be aware of these changes, which could have a drastic impact on their lives.

Margaret from my Strangford constituency wrote to me with a heartfelt plea, which I am sure echoes the views of many women across the whole of Strangford, Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She says:

“The stress I feel at times is awful. I thought that at this stage in my life I would have time for the ‘me’ things in life. Women my age have worked hard, we were the generation of the working wife and mother. We are, at this age, the generation of looking after grandchildren and ageing parents. We were given very little time to prepare for this extended retirement age…I feel this latest update in retirement age is unfair as all the plans I had disappeared.”

She underlines the point by saying:

“I was told several years ago that retirement age would be 62 so I had set that as a target for my future plans. Then 18 months ago I am informed that the retirement age was upped to 66. How could our own Government treat us this way?”

I ask the Minister to answer that question of how the Government could let such people down so badly.

It is important to give consideration to the fact that women who are going to be affected by these changes grew up in and worked in a time when income inequality was still rife. The women affected were in the workplace in environments drastically different from today’s. They had none of the advantages young women have today in a more equal professional and working environment.

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The DWP issues state pension forecasts to working-age people who had not received any type of forecast in the preceding 12 months. Despite this being issued after equalisation was agreed, the letter made no reference whatever to the changes. The opportunity to communicate the changes to affected women early and clearly has been missed, but it is not too late, even today, for the Minister to say that it is possible to make a difference, and to make the process much easier for those women. We need a coherent Government strategy, and we need it to be implemented as soon as possible to assist the women who are affected by these changes through no fault of their own.

2.20 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): It was a privilege to hear the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) move the motion, and it was an honour for me to join her in approaching the Backbench Business Committee to request the debate. There have been some powerful contributions from a number of Members who have campaigned on this issue in this and, indeed, the last Parliament.

We have heard much reference to the former Minister Steve Webb, and to what he has recently said. The question that now arises is this: if the Minister himself was subject to some misunderstanding or misapprehension—if he was in some way misled or misinformed—was the House in turn misled and misinformed in 2011, when he made various statements about impact assessments both in the Chamber and in Committee?

I often hear in the House about the principle that one Parliament cannot bind its successor. We are talking about an issue, and a choice, for this Parliament. Those who were not here in 2011 but are here now cannot wash their hands and say, “It is nothing to do with us.” This is a choice for us. The fact is that if the Minister was not fully aware of the facts by the time the Bill had completed its passage, other Members were not either, and the people who are directly affected by these changes certainly were not. Given that they are now so active and animated through the WASPI campaign, it is clear that if they had been aware of the facts much earlier, they would have been active much earlier.

It is insulting for Conservative Members to suggest that perhaps people had been informed and simply did not know, and if they did not know they should have known. These women have demonstrated that had they known about the position, they would have done something about it, both in terms of their personal circumstances and in terms of the public policy challenges that they would have issued. Conservative Members also came out with the nonsense that there was no alternative: that they were seeking transitional arrangements leading to pension equality, but none had been proposed. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) about the “hard shoulder” arrangements that had been introduced in other countries. Moreover, as I pointed out in an intervention earlier, additional transitional measures were proposed during the Bill’s passage in 2011, but were voted down by the Government.

In May 2011, during a debate in Westminster Hall, I said that if the Minister did not indicate that he would revise the proposals in the Bill because the women involved were an unintended anomaly, those women

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would have no choice but to conclude that they had been calculated as the victims of an intentional injustice—a drive-by hit on their pension rights. That is how things stand. If we fail to pass this motion, we will be saying that those women are an acceptable casualty on the way to equality, and we cannot accept invidious treatment in the name of equality.

2.23 pm

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): I warmly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) and congratulate her on securing the debate, and on making such a powerful speech about the inequalities that many women face as a result of changes in the state pension regime. I must add that, given that the debate concerns an issue that is so important to millions of women, it is an utter disgrace that a grand total of two Tory Back Benchers were in the Chamber at 2 pm, and that only half a dozen are present now, as the debate draws to a close. That shows the contempt that the Government feel for the women who are suffering as a result of the pension changes that have been foisted on them. [Interruption.] Yes, it would have been easier for them just to turn up. Where are they, and will they have the guts to stand up and vote this afternoon if we press the motion to a Division, as I expect we will?

There is no more fundamental consideration for all of us than ensuring that we can look forward to retirement, and to a retirement that offers security and dignity. We are here today because women who were born in the 1950s believe that they have been short-changed by this Government, and they are right to do so.

I should make it clear—as many of my hon. Friends have done already, along with Labour Members—that we support the principle of equalisation. It is not equalisation that is the issue; it is the speed of the journey towards equalisation that is unjust, and has led to significant and unacceptable consequences for many women whose expectation of retirement has been deferred.

The Government will tell us, as they often do, that this is all about money. To us, it is also about equity and fairness, and about doing the right thing. That is the problem with this Government. They are wedded to austerity, and wedded to reducing spending, and their obligation to society—and, specifically, to the case that women pensioners are pressing—is one that they are quite prepared to rip up and toss away. “Let us get the deficit down, and others will have to pay the price.” Austerity is not an economic necessity but a political choice, and 1950s women are paying the price of that choice. As we know, this Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Women’s pension rights are expendable, and the hopes of many for a decent retirement are crushed by the desire to achieve a budget surplus. We should never cease to tell the House, and the country, that there is an alternative. What we are seeing from the Government is an abrogation of responsibility. We are seeing a poverty of hope and a poverty of ambition.

No doubt the Minister will trot out the excuse that the money could not be found to create a longer transitional period, but this is all about priorities. When a Government can find £167 billion to invest in weapons of mass

7 Jan 2016 : Column 504

destruction, they can find the money to ensure that our prisoners are protected. On this issue as on so many others, this Government have a faulty moral compass.

When people enter into an arrangement with any pension provider, they are, in effect, assuming that the provider will exercise its contractual responsibilities. Whether private pensions or national insurance contributions are involved, they are effectively entering into a contractual arrangement. In this case, the state had, since 1940, been paying pensions to women who had reached the age of 60. Women had the expectation that that was what was going to happen.

The women behind the WASPI campaign are to be congratulated on the way in which they have pursued this matter. As with the issue of tax credits, on which the Government ultimately had to see sense, I expect there to be a growing clamour for the Government to do the right thing. I am glad to see that the press are already beginning to take an interest in this story. The Sunday Post in Scotland should be commended for putting it on the front page last Sunday. I understand from its Westminster editor that it has received nearly 400 e-mails this week from women affected by the changes, and I have many of them here.

Let us look at the reality of what is happening. Let us consider how sharply different will be the experiences of women born in the early 1950s. For argument’s sake, let us take the examples of women who were born on 10 February, from 1950 onwards. A woman who was born on 10 February 1950 would have retired at 60 in 2010. A woman born a year later would have had to wait almost two years longer to retire on 6 January 2012. A woman born on 10 February 1952 would have reached the state pension age yesterday, aged 61 years, 10 months and 27 days. Such a woman would have had to wait almost two more years than a woman born in 1950. As if that were not bad enough, the increases in pensionable age for women born in 1953 and 1954 become markedly worse. A woman born in 1954 will not reach pensionable age until 6 July 2019, when she will be aged 65 years, four months and 26 days. A woman born in 1955 will not retire until 10 February 2021, aged 66.

That cannot be right. It is far too steep an increase over a short period in pensionable age. I ask the few Conservative Members who are present to examine their consciences. Members of the WASPI campaign will be coming to their surgeries. Perhaps they will include a woman who was born in 1955, and who had expected to retire either now or not long into the future. Are Conservative MPs going to tell those women that it is right for them to have to wait six years longer than someone who was born five years earlier, without mitigation? That is the scale of the increase that has hit them. It is a breach of trust between the Government and women who have earned the right to a pension. Let me, as a reasonable person—as indeed we all are on these SNP Benches—help the Government out. We should also heed the recognition of the last Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, who last month admitted that the Government made a bad decision on state pension age rises. We should recall the advice from the Turner report—much quoted today—that such measures should be brought in over a 15-year period to mitigate the impact of any such changes. We have heard about the failure of communication, which it can be argued means the start of the 15-year process should be the beginning

7 Jan 2016 : Column 505

of the changes in 2010. That would mean that, as we are effectively going to be at a retirement age of 63 for women as of April this year, the Government could, for example, look at smoothing the increase in pensionable age for women aged 63 to 66 out to 2025.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South mentioned at the start of her speech that pensions are incredibly complicated. My hon. Friend is also right that we have built in complexity, as well as a number of inconsistencies from the incessant tinkering that often seems at odds with other aspects of pension policy. We all ought to agree that pensions policy should be about getting things right for the longer term.

A number of positive developments have been enacted, such as auto-enrolment, but even here we need to come back and talk about how we can enhance auto-enrolment, and deal with the issue of part-time workers, for example. There are also outstanding issues on the new single-tier pension, and here again there are rightful criticisms on how this has affected many woman born in the 1950s. What I would suggest to the Government, and this is something I hope would have broad support, is that they should establish an independent pension commission that can look holistically at all these issues that require oversight.

If we accept, as we do, that there has to be equalisation of the state pension age, we also need to look at how this and the increase in the state pension age will affect people throughout the UK. We need to look at vastly different mortality rates across the UK and question how this may influence the debate on state pension age.

In conclusion, therefore, let me say the following. In Scotland a 65-year-old man today can normally expect to live until he is 82, and a woman to age 84. That is nearly two and a half years below life expectancy in England. There is therefore a considerable difference in the life experiences of people in different parts of the UK and, crucially, much less time for someone in Scotland to enjoy a secure and comfortable retirement.

We have had a debate today that has shone a light on pension inequalities that many woman born in the 1950s face. I hope the Government are listening and are prepared to reflect on what can be done to mitigate this unfairness. I would also hope they would take on board our suggestion of having an independent pension commission.

2.33 pm

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): I commend the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) for securing and opening this debate. It is perhaps an irony, however, as we are discussing pensions, that she is further from retirement age than any other Member of this House. I also want to pay a warm tribute to WASPI on its campaign and the dignity with which it has conducted it. It is a measure of the campaign’s success that every Member of this House knows the meaning of the acronym WASPI. I also pay tribute to the other groups and individuals who have been advocating the cause of women born in the 1950s.

The level of interest in this debate is summed up by the fact that we have had 26 Back-Bench contributions from Members from all parts of the United Kingdom. I want to pick out two contributions: that of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who has done so much work on this in recent

7 Jan 2016 : Column 506

years, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), whose deep commitment to this is known across the House.

I also want to pay tribute to my Labour colleagues who in 2011, when the Pensions Act was going through this House, pressed the issue of transitional provisions as hard as they could. It is a shame the Government did not listen to many of our proposals set out at the time.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): At that time, the Secretary of State said in debate said he would consider transitional protection. Has my hon. Friend seen any evidence of that consideration being given?

Nick Thomas-Symonds: That points to what has happened here. In previous debates on this matter the Minister has talked about the cap on the increase being reduced from 24 to 18 months, but that was as far as it got, and we see the Government today have no positive proposals. They keep asking the Opposition about their proposals, but it is the Government whose mind has gone completely blank on this issue.

Let us not forget the fundamentals of this debate. Many women born in the 1950s will have started their working lives without even the protection of the Equal Pay Act 1970. Many of those women will have been paid at a lower rate than men for no reason other than that they were women. The gender pay gap is at its widest for many of the women under discussion today. Also, let us not forget the time that many of them took to work part-time or bring up children when they have not even had the chance to contribute to occupational pensions.

The Pensions Act 1995 increased the state pension age from 60 to 65 for women between April 2010 and 2020, to bring it into line with the state pension age for men, but the coalition Government moved the goalposts. They decided to accelerate the increase in the women’s state pension age from April 2016 so that it reached 65 by November 2018. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has pointed out, in the Second Reading debate in this House on 20 June 2011 the Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that the Government would “consider transitional arrangements.”

The much vaunted reduction in the cap—capping the maximum increase at 18 months—that the Minister has pointed to in recent debates simply is not enough. Do the Government understand the anger at the fact that more transitional provisions have not been considered—over 100,000 signatures for a debate in this House, the online campaign and the great response to it in the media? Recently I was told by the Sunday Post that a feature on this subject brings an unprecedented response from the hundreds of thousands of women who are affected.

Let us ask ourselves what the Pensions Minister in the coalition Government at the time thinks. This is what he told the Institute for Government:

“There was one very early decision that we took about state pension ages, which we would have done differently if we’d been properly briefed, and we weren’t.”

He added:

“We made a choice, and the implications of what we were doing suddenly, about two or three months later, it became clear that they were very different from what we thought.”

7 Jan 2016 : Column 507

He then said:

“So basically we made a bad decision. We realised too late. It had just gone too far by then.”

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): The only thing my hon. Friend has forgotten to mention is that the whole idea was masterminded and put forward at the Dispatch Box by that tin-pot Liberal who called himself Professor Steve Webb.

Nick Thomas-Symonds: I am honoured to be put right by that intervention, and perhaps the Professor, as we shall forever refer to him, would have been better off listening to my colleagues on the Labour Benches and the civil servants.

It would be even more interesting to ask ourselves what the current Pensions Minister thinks of the 2011 Act. I thoroughly recommend to the House rosaltmann.com, which has a lot of wonderful critiques of the coalition pensions policy in it. She cannot deny it is her site; her photograph is on every contribution. She said this about the 2011 Act:

“The Government has decided to renege on its Coalition Agreement, by increasing the State Pension Age for women from 2016, even though it assured these women that it would not start raising the pension age again before 2020.”

That is what the current Minister for Pensions said. Even after the concession of the cap being reduced, this is what she said to the Yorkshire Post on 6 June 2013:

“The coalition seems oblivious to the problems faced by those already in their late fifties, particularly women, who feel they simply do not matter to policymakers.”

What an appropriate critique that is!

We should also look carefully at the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) who talked about being lobbied by the Pensions Minister about applying the pensions protection fund retrospectively. Her lobbying of my right hon. Friend was effective on that occasion. She told him that the impossible was possible. Now, however, she says that what we are trying to achieve is impossible. I have an interest in history, and I have been trying—unsuccessfully—all morning to think of an example of another Minister who had more influence on Government policy when they were outside the Government than when they were in it.

We have heard much about the key question of notice. It is key because the Government have in their gift the pensions legal framework in this country, and when they make changes to it, they have a duty to provide notice of them. The House should not just take my word for that; let us take the word of the Pensions Minister. What did she say about women who were already in their late 50s and about the notice they were given under the 2011 Act? She said:

“They are not being given enough notice of such a huge change.”

Why will she not listen to her own words now?

This debate is taking place against the backdrop of a decision in the district court in the northern Netherlands, which has already been mentioned today. It found that a lady who suffered from a number of chronic, progressive diseases faced a disproportionate burden in bridging the gap to her extended retirement age. How awful it would be if this battle were to end up in the courts,

7 Jan 2016 : Column 508

given that the Government have the chance to do something about it today. The Government keep saying that they are not sure what to do. They find it impossible to do anything about this, and they have no proposals to bring forward. Yet if we look at the passage of the Pensions Act 2011, we can see that they had a number of options at that time, one of which has been set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) today. Another, which was put forward by one of my predecessors as shadow Pensions Minister, related to maintaining the qualifying age for pension credit on the 1995 timetable rather than the 2011 one, which would at least have provided a buffer for those who were least able to cope financially with the changes. That proposal was completely dismissed at the time.

I ask the Minister at least to open his mind to having a discussion about what might be done, instead of consistently hiding behind the fact that he is going to do absolutely nothing. We have today heard the passion around this issue, and it is not an issue that is going to go away. I urge the Government to be constructive. They could still do something to ease the transitions. Whatever the Minister does today, he should not slam the door in the face of the 1950s women.

2.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Shailesh Vara): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on managing to secure this debate, which has attracted many Members on both sides of the House. I also commend all the colleagues who have taken the trouble to come here and speak today. I will try to address as many of their points as I can in the limited time available to me.

I should like to begin by reminding the House of the rationale for reforming the timetable. For our state pension system to function effectively, it has to be fair, affordable and sustainable. The changes made to the state pension age under the Pensions Act 2011 make an important contribution to achieving those aims. Gender equality is one of the main purposes of the changes to the state pension age. Under the previous system, women reaching state pension age in 2010 would spend on average 41% of their adult lives in receipt of the state pension. For men, the figure was only 31%, owing to the longer life expectancy and earlier state pension age of women.

It makes little sense for women to work to a pension age originally set in 1940 which does not reflect the employment opportunities open to them in a modern society. Changes were needed to take account of increased life expectancy and to ensure fairness for working-age people who would otherwise bear the cost of this longevity. Following sharp rises in life expectancy, the previous Government acted to address this and brought forward the timetable for rises in the state pension age. This was vital if we were to continue to meet the UK’s obligations under EU law to eliminate gender inequalities in social security provision and to ensure that the state pension remained affordable and sustainable. It is also important to look at the changes in the context of our wider pension reforms and what these mean for women.

Barbara Keeley: The Minister cannot have been listening to what I said earlier. A substantial proportion of what I said showed that that is not the case, although he and his colleagues are hiding behind that argument.

7 Jan 2016 : Column 509

We were not required to do that. Some EU countries are not equalising until 2040 or 2044, and some are maintaining a difference. Will he please stop hiding behind something that is not true?

Mr Vara: The hon. Lady should respect the views of other people, rather than simply stating that what she says is right. We are bound by EU law, but it is also right and proper that we should have gender equality, irrespective of EU law.

Ian Blackford: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vara: I will not give way. I am mindful of the limited time that I have, and I am keen to ensure that the proposer of the motion, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, has time to make her concluding comments at the end of the debate.

The introduction of the new state pension will benefit many women who would have lost out under the current two-tier system, largely as a result of lower average earnings and part-time working. All those affected by the 2011 changes will reach pension age after the introduction of the new state pension. Around 650,000 women reaching state pension age in the first 10 years will receive an average of £8 per week more under the new state pension than they would have done under the previous system. The majority of households reaching state pension age up to 2030 will receive a higher total income over retirement under the new system.

The solution to ensuring that people have a comfortable later life is encouraging and enabling them to work longer. This benefits individuals through the social and financial rewards of employment, it benefits employers through the skills and experiences that older workers bring to the workplace, and it benefits the wider economy. Research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has shown that adding just one year to people’s working lives would add 1% to UK GDP per year.

Support is in place to provide extra help for people who cannot work owing to caring responsibilities, ill health or disability. Women affected would be eligible for the same in-work, out-of-work or disability benefits as men of their age, and carer’s allowance may be available, for which national insurance credits are awarded automatically. In 2011, credits were introduced to help adult family members looking after a child under 12 in order to assist the parents who were working, with these credits being able to count towards state pension entitlements.

Much has been made of the comments made by the previous Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, and it is important to recognise that even he was not seeking a restoration that would cost £30 billion. Indeed, he said that he was only looking for a 10% clawback. It is also worth remembering that he does recognise that the £1.1 billion concession that was made was generous. He exact words were:

“and we got £1 billion back in the end, and a billion quid is a serious amount of money.”

Ian Blackford rose

Mr Vara: I will not give way.

Nick Thomas-Symonds rose

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Mr Vara: I will give way.

Nick Thomas-Symonds: I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous in giving way. He read out the quote about £1 billion being a “serious amount of money”, but he really should have quoted the whole sentence, which begins:

“this was a measure to save 30 billion quid over how many years, and we wanted 10% of that back to soften the blow”.

Steve Webb wanted £3 billion back but got only £1 billion.

Mr Vara: If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to listen while he was preparing his question, he would know that that is what I said, except that I used different words. He might want to check the Hansard record tomorrow morning. In this place, it always helps to listen before speaking.

The Government listened to the concerns expressed during the passing of the 2011 Act, and shortened the delay that anyone would experience in claiming their state pension, relative to the 1995 timetable, to 18 months. That concession benefited almost a quarter of a million women, who would otherwise have experienced delays of up to two years. A similar number of men also benefited from a reduced increase. The concession was worth £1.1 billion in total, and as a result 81% of women affected will experience a delay of 12 months or less.

Mhairi Black: To me, the concessions that were given show that the Government recognise that the transition was not appropriate. Given that the wording of today’s motion is clear in asking the Government to reassess the transitional arrangements, will the Minister confirm that he will do so if the motion is passed, be it unanimously or with a vote—yes or no?

Mr Vara: Much has been made of what was “promised” on Second Reading. What I say to the hon. Lady and others is that this concession was made after it was said that this would be considered, and that the concession is worth six months and £1.1 billion.

Ian Blackford rose

Mr Vara: I have only a short time left and I must press on.

As for people being aware of the 1995 changes, I should add that research carried out in 2004 by the Department for Work and Pensions found that 73% of people aged 45 to 54 were aware of the changes to women’s state pension age. It is regrettable that people have sought to put this on a political basis and have conveniently forgotten that after 1995 we had 13 years of Labour government. I have here a list of some 10 Labour Pensions Ministers who totally failed to do anything, yet Labour Members conveniently seek to put the blame on the things that have happened post-2010. The shadow Home Secretary made comments earlier, but he was a Labour Cabinet Minister, and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who also made comments today, was also in the Labour Administration. He is a former Pensions Minister, yet he did nothing then.

Alan Johnson rose

Mr Vara: I am afraid I will not give way. [Hon. Members: “Give way.”] I have only a few seconds left, but I will give way.

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Alan Johnson: Indeed, I was the Work and Pensions Secretary, but we introduced measures that did not include this anomaly—it was introduced in 2011.

Mr Vara: The right hon. Gentleman spoke earlier of being lobbied, but he took no action on that. Furthermore, big issues arise as to whether notice was given in respect of the changes in 1995, and when he was Work and Pensions Secretary he did nothing to make sure that those women were informed. All the blame has been put on Conservative Members.

I wind up simply by saying that this matter was debated thoroughly and properly in 2011. A concession was made then—by way of time period and financially—which was worth more than £1 billion, and it was thoroughly debated in both Houses of Parliament. I very much hope that I have put the Government’s position on the record. I simply say to some people that they, too, should learn to take responsibility, given that they were in government for 13 years. With that, I shall allow time for the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South to speak.

2.45 pm

Mhairi Black: First, I wish to congratulate the House on having such a good quality debate. What has been striking is that this is an issue that clearly crosses party boundaries and constituencies. The Minister said that it had already been thoroughly debated, but that was in 2011. All the evidence that we have heard today shows that this matter needed to be debated more, which it has been, and we have found that the accommodation reached in 2011 did not go far enough and is not good enough. Despite my intervention in this whole debate, I am no further forward in understanding whether, if this motion is passed, the Government will commit to reassess the transitional arrangements.

The Minister has spoken at great length about equalisation. Nobody here disagrees with the principle of equalisation. What we are concerned about is the transition, and that has not been addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) quite rightly pointed out that this matter is about priority; everything that a Government decide to do is about priority. I am still not clear what the priorities of this Government are, and for that reason I wish to press this matter to a vote.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): Order. Before I put the question, may I remind the House that Members who shout, “Aye” cannot then vote no, and Members who shout “No” cannot then vote aye. I hope that is clear.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 158, Noes 0.

Division No. 159]


2.55 pm


Abrahams, Debbie

Ahmed-Sheikh, Ms Tasmina

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Arkless, Richard

Austin, Ian

Bardell, Hannah

Benn, rh Hilary

Black, Mhairi

Blackford, Ian

Blackman, Bob

Blackman, Kirsty

Blenkinsop, Tom

Boswell, Philip

Brock, Deidre

Brown, Alan

Brown, Lyn

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Butler, Dawn

Cameron, Dr Lisa

Campbell, rh Mr Alan

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Chapman, Douglas

Chapman, Jenny

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, rh Jeremy

Cowan, Ronnie

Coyle, Neil

Crawley, Angela

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Dakin, Nic

Davies, Geraint

Day, Martyn

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Donaldson, Stuart Blair

Doughty, Stephen

Dowd, Peter

Durkan, Mark

Edwards, Jonathan

Esterson, Bill

Ferrier, Margaret

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Foxcroft, Vicky

Gibson, Patricia

Glass, Pat

Goodman, Helen

Grady, Patrick

Grant, Peter

Gray, Neil

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Margaret

Gwynne, Andrew

Haigh, Louise

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Carolyn

Hayes, Helen

Hayman, Sue

Hendry, Drew

Hillier, Meg

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Huq, Dr Rupa

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Kane, Mike

Keeley, Barbara

Kerevan, George

Kerr, Calum

Kinahan, Danny

Kinnock, Stephen

Kyle, Peter

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma

Lewis, Clive

Lucas, Caroline

Lynch, Holly

Mactaggart, rh Fiona

Marsden, Mr Gordon

Maskell, Rachael

Matheson, Christian

McDonald, Stewart Malcolm

McDonald, Stuart C.

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGarry, Natalie

McGovern, Alison

McLaughlin, Anne

Monaghan, Dr Paul

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Mullin, Roger

Murray, Ian

Newlands, Gavin

Nicolson, John

O'Hara, Brendan

Onn, Melanie

Osamor, Kate

Oswald, Kirsten

Paterson, Steven

Pennycook, Matthew

Pound, Stephen

Qureshi, Yasmin

Rees, Christina

Reynolds, Jonathan

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robinson, Gavin

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Ryan, rh Joan

Salmond, rh Alex

Saville Roberts, Liz

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheppard, Tommy

Shuker, Mr Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Andy

Smeeth, Ruth

Smith, Cat

Smith, Owen

Smyth, Karin

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stephens, Chris

Stevens, Jo

Streeting, Wes

Stuart, rh Ms Gisela

Tami, Mark

Thewliss, Alison

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thomas-Symonds, Nick

Thomson, Michelle

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Turley, Anna

Twigg, Stephen

Vaz, Valerie

Watson, Mr Tom

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitford, Dr Philippa

Williams, Mr Mark

Wilson, Corri

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Dame Rosie

Wright, Mr Iain

Zeichner, Daniel

Tellers for the Ayes:

Marion Fellows


Jeff Smith


Tellers for the Noes:

Mike Weir


Grahame M. Morris

Question accordingly agreed to.

7 Jan 2016 : Column 512

7 Jan 2016 : Column 513


That this House, while welcoming the equalisation of the state pension age, is concerned that the acceleration of that equalisation directly discriminates against women born on or after 6 April 1951, leaving women with only a few years to make alternative arrangements, adversely affecting their retirement plans and causing undue hardship; regrets that the Government has failed to address a lifetime of low pay and inequality faced by many women; and calls on the Government to immediately introduce transitional arrangements for those women negatively affected by that equalisation.

Alex Salmond (Gordon) (SNP): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have just had a very convincing vote on a motion that is quite specific in calling for the Government to introduce transitional arrangements. These Backbench Business debates are a relatively new phenomenon. Even newer is the Government’s tendency to try to ignore them completely. That is something with which we should not put up.

Can you confirm that there are certain things that we can do unambiguously as a House if the Government choose to continue this bad practice? We could, for example, cut the salary of the Pensions Minister—or his pension, for that matter. Alternatively, we could ask you to summon him on a weekly basis. Can you confirm that it is within the province of this House to ask you to summon the Minister on a weekly basis till he bends to

7 Jan 2016 : Column 514

the will of the House? Can you confirm that these are matters that are unambiguously within the province of this House if the Pensions Minister continues his arrogant refusal to accept a democratic vote?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point of order and for advance notice of it. He was not in the previous Parliament so he is probably unaware that I chaired the Backbench Business Committee for five years, during which we spent a lot of time grappling with these issues. Most people know that Backbench motions are not binding on the Government. There are situations in which they are binding on the House and I am happy to have a long conversation—not here and not now—with the right hon. Gentleman about those situations. This is an opportunity for the House to express its will.

We have had a long debate and a long Division. We have another debate coming up which is heavily subscribed. I want to move on.

Alex Salmond rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: I will let the right hon. Gentleman have a brief word, then we move on.

Alex Salmond: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I gave you two illustrations of things that the House has within its gift—namely, action against the Minister or asking you to instruct him to do something. Could you confirm that those are unambiguously within the province—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. That really is way outside the debate that has taken place, and I wish to move on. We now come to the next motion on the Order Paper, which is on children in care.

7 Jan 2016 : Column 515

Children in Care

3.9 pm

Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House calls on the Government to take steps to help reduce the number of children entering the care system by bringing forward measures to support more children to remain safely at home with their family or extended family.

I am most grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate to take place. The voices of children in care and their families are rarely heard, yet they are among the most vulnerable in society and have the greatest need of representation.

Over recent years, steadily rising numbers of children have been taken into care. There are now 70,000 looked-after children in this country. The rise began in response to the very tragic case of baby Peter Connelly in 2008, but has since continued. Some argue that an increase in the number of children in care shows that local authority children’s services are getting better at identifying those at risk of harm, and that it must therefore be a good thing, but we need only look at the outcomes and life chances of care leavers to realise that a childhood in care creates its own risks.

I could cite many deeply saddening statistics on levels of poverty, addiction, suicide, poor educational attainment, over-representation in the prison population, and higher levels of mental health difficulties compared with the population as a whole. However, perhaps the saddest statistic is the number of care leavers whose own children are then taken into care. There is a self-perpetuating cycle of loss, with wounds that never heal, when the bond between parent and child is broken. Children in care will tell us of multiple fostering placement breakdowns, the sense of being unwanted, unloved and abandoned, the loss of identity in being split up from their siblings and grandparents, repeat changes of schools and loss of friendship circles, and the feeling of never truly belonging.

The tragic, high-profile cases of child abuse and neglect have left professionals with an entrenched fear of getting it wrong. Understandably, they face significant pressure to take steps to secure the removal of children rather than finding the optimal solution for every child. I say that if the state is going to intrude in the private family life of an individual, it must guarantee better life chances for those children. Of course the welfare of a child must always come first, but in many cases their welfare is best served by staying with their parent, if that parent can be supported properly, rather than facing an uncertain future in care.

Instead of supporting a family when experiencing stress, the situation may be left until a crisis point is reached, and then the family experience compulsory state intervention. Inevitably, this is a time of scarce resources for local authorities, but it is hard not to argue that prevention is better than a life in care.

Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Lady join me in thanking and paying tribute to the many thousands of family members around the country who step in and support children when the parental relationship has broken down? Those kinship carers, as they are known, do a fantastic job, and we would like to see more support for them, perhaps on an equal partnership basis with those who adopt. They save the state an awful lot of money and give kids a life chance they might not otherwise have had.

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Lucy Allan: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come on to speak about the important role of kinship carers and the support they could be offered. She makes a very valuable point.

Yesterday, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, gave evidence to the Education Committee on early intervention and she spoke powerfully about the benefits. It is a vital stage in child protection and it can, in these difficult financial times, be in danger of being bypassed.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I am a Welsh MP and in Wales we have the Flying Start scheme for families with difficulties in areas where poverty is high. The scheme starts at the point of pregnancy and there is regular engagement with a midwife. Once the child is born, dedicated nursing services provide support by discussing play, talking, food and setting boundaries, as well as by tackling any drug and alcohol problems in the family. Is not that kind of holistic embracement the way forward for many families?

Lucy Allan: I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention and I hope the Minister listened to what she had to say.

Instead of care proceedings being the option of last resort—which it really is intended to be under the legislation—many families find themselves on a track where too often there is only one outcome. Media, families and campaigners have been talking about that trend for a number of years, and I believe the message is starting to get through.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I should declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this subject, because this Chamber does not get to talk enough about children in care. I concur with her: the number of children in care in England is now the largest since 1985. On her point about early intervention, will she challenge the Minister later—alas, I cannot be here for the end of the debate—by asking him what has happened to the early help recommendation made by the Munro review of child protection, which I commissioned back in 2010 and which reported in 2011? It is exactly that sort of intervention that will keep families together wherever possible, but it seems to have gone off the radar. Does my hon. Friend agree that it needs to be very much back on the Government’s agenda?

Lucy Allan: My hon. Friend was an excellent children’s Minister. I remember talking to him about some of the issues and he makes his point very well. I am encouraged that there is growing acceptance that more can be done to help families stay together and to stay together safely. That has to be better for society and financially, and, most importantly, it is better for children.

My local council in Telford understands that. Its focus is on ensuring that children and families receive the right help at the right time. Its strengthening families programme supports families with deep challenges, which in turn ensures that more expensive and damaging interventions do not become necessary. Central to that successful scheme is the implementation of “Family Connect”, which is a single, multi-agency front door for children and families. There are other examples of good practice helping children on the fringes of care to stay out of the system.

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Many MPs will have had correspondence from constituents desperate to keep their children out of the care system and to keep their family together. Usually, by the time families are in touch with their MP, care proceedings are under way and there is nothing we can do. Parents are frightened, angry and overwhelmed by the monitoring, the scrutiny and the building of the case against them, which is never intended to be supportive of or conducive to building stronger families.

The Family Rights Group provides free specialist legal advice for families caught up in what can be a nightmare. It helps families navigate the complexities of local authority child protection investigations, enabling them to have a more constructive and informed relationship with social services. Demand for the organisation’s services has doubled since 2010, and only four in 10 callers can be answered. According to the Family Rights Group, its Department for Education funding is due to end in March. I urge the Minister to think carefully about the benefit of the organisation and whether its funding can be renewed.

I do not accept that a continued increase in the number of children in care is inevitable. What sort of society would this be if we were to assume that state care would do better than parents? I believe—this is based on working with families caught up in the child protection system—that most parents, however difficult their circumstances or background, set out to do the very best they can by their children. The first step must be to help them to achieve that goal, but such a mindset is not necessarily prevalent in the world of child protection. In fact, sometimes the reverse is the case.

A professional—a health visitor, a teacher, a nurse, a GP, an A&E doctor, or anyone interfacing with a child—is encouraged to think the unthinkable. What do I mean by that? I mean thinking that any parent, including any of us, might be capable of deliberately harming their child. The net in which families are caught is being cast wider and wider. Today, one in 100 children in England is subject to child protection investigations, which is a 79% increase in five years. As professional anxiety rises and support services dwindle, the consequence is that more children are spending a life in care. A parent fleeing a violent or abusive relationship, one seeking help for mental health problems or those who themselves had a childhood in care may all be considered a risk of future emotional harm to their child.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I very much agree with the points the hon. Lady is making. Does she agree that this is a false economy? If we cut back on preventive services—the support services to which she is referring—we will end up spending more in supporting children in need, who have reduced educational outcomes and all the other consequences of being in care. From everybody’s point of view, it is a worthwhile investment to stop that happening.

Lucy Allan: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very useful comment, with which I agree entirely.

A risk of future emotional harm is assessed on a pattern of potential risk factors—poor housing, single parenthood, poverty, an abusive partner—which all combine to create a risk that professionals simply cannot take. All too often, it is the most disadvantaged who are affected by this system.

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Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con): I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that she is painting a rather malign picture of the child protection system, as if it were a bunch of child catchers wandering around the country and randomly looking for children to apprehend. Will she acknowledge that, notwithstanding the odd one that does not go the right way, the vast majority of child protection cases actually come to the right decision?

Lucy Allan: I will move on to my hon. Friend’s point with regard to the court system.

There will always be children who are not able to stay safely at home. It is a difficult and challenging task to identify those children correctly. As such matters are decided by an independent court, we are told that we should be confident that the correct decision will always be made. I must say to the House, however, that a court can decide a case only on the basis of the evidence put before it by child protection professionals and that that evidence is often dominated by opinion. The court does not have the discretion to disregard professional opinion in favour of a distraught parent who is desperately trying to navigate the complexities of the legal system or desperately trying to prove their innocence when up against the full might of the state.

The motion asks the Government

“to support more children to remain safely at home”.

There are many examples of good practice currently being undertaken by the Government, such as the troubled families initiative, the children’s social care innovation programme and the Pause project in Hackney. I will conclude by briefly asking the Minister to consider other alternatives to help children to stay safely at home with their families.

We know from recent research that when a mother has a child removed, the trauma and loss often results in multiple repeat pregnancies. Sadly, such children are almost always taken into care immediately. I have sat on an adoption and fostering panel to which a mother came back 10 times. Nobody ever addressed the mother’s issues, and those 10 children were taken into care. That goes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) about the cost-effectiveness of dealing with the difficulties experienced by a mother in such a situation. I therefore ask the Minister to consider therapeutic intervention for mothers at the earliest opportunity, because that is cost-effective and because care simply is not the answer that the professionals would like it to be.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Before becoming a Member of the House, I represented parents whose children were taken into local authority care. One thing I noticed was that, when a baby was up for adoption, there was an unseemly haste, and local authorities did not try to work with the family or the mother to be able to give the child back to the family. I found that very disturbing.

Lucy Allan: I agree with the hon. Lady. There is a requirement to facilitate reunification and rehabilitation. I, too, have worked with those families, and often found that local authorities do not engage. Local authorities are required to consider those points but the preliminary steps are difficult and potentially fraught with risk.

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That is why they are often skipped over or dismissed. The words used so often are: “It would be inconsistent with the child’s timeline,” or, “It is not in the best interests of the child,” or, “It shows unmerited optimism to assume that rehabilitation and reunification is an option.”

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that there are two types of home? Some homes are found to be guilty and some should be found guilty but are not. We have both those things going on at the same time.

Lucy Allan: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some families are under the radar, do not approach professionals for help and are missed. We must be extremely careful. That is why it is such a difficult judgment to make.

Kinship carers perform an invaluable role. Placing a child with a grandparent or a member of an extended family is, in my experience, often overlooked as an option. There is always a stronger focus on adoption. I urge the Minister to consider more support for kinship carers and to continue to encourage local authorities to see kinship care as often being in the best interest of the child. It allows the child to stay with siblings in a familiar context. Relatives are often dismissed as inappropriate because of their connections with the child’s natural parent who is found wanting.

Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is that local authorities’ rush towards adoption makes it more difficult for grandparents to go through the process and demonstrate that they are properly equipped and suited to look after their grandchildren?

Lucy Allan: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am delighted that he makes that point.

No family is perfect—it is about good-enough parenting and the sense of belonging and identity that is irreplaceable for any child. I urge the Minister to support the Family Rights Group so that parents can have access to free and independent advice at an early stage in any investigation against them.

Mrs Moon: It is some time since I placed children for adoption and some time since I have been involved in child protection work, but the guardian ad litem system is being disregarded. It plays a vital role in ensuring that all potential other sources of care are examined and explored before the case goes before a judge. I would like that to be examined and acknowledged.

Lucy Allan: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point.

In conclusion, I am encouraged by what I have heard from the Minister and the Prime Minister. He has always been committed to strengthening families and sees families as the bedrock of society. He has recently spoken passionately and sincerely of his desire to see fewer children in care. He has said that the care system and the plight of children in care shames our country, and has spoken of his commitment to the life chances of the most disadvantaged young people. It might be

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that, with the motion, I and other Members who support it are pushing at an open door. I very much hope that that is the case, so that that sense of belonging and security can be part of every child’s life.

3.29 pm

Alan Johnson (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab): I am delighted to join the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) in sponsoring this debate.

To declare my interest, I am the patron of the Family Rights Group, the charity that works with parents in England and Wales whose children are in need, at risk or in the care system. May I follow the hon. Lady in this preamble to my speech and say to those on the Treasury Bench that the Family Rights Group provides the only free, open-access, specialist legal advice service for such families? Governments of all persuasions have recognised its importance.

The simple fact is that demand for the charity’s services has gone up and its funding has reduced. That is bad enough, but if the Government do not pull their finger out, the service will cease completely on 31 March —just a few weeks from now. I hope that the Minister will say something on that in his response, because the need for the work that the Family Rights Group does and the advice that it gives underpins all the various elements that we will hear about in the debate on this huge subject today. Preserving it would be the first step towards carrying out the terms of the motion.

I do not claim to have changed the world in my short period as Secretary of State for Education, but together with my children’s Minister, now Baroness Hughes of Stretford, I tried to improve the situation for children in care through the measures in the “Care Matters” White Paper. We were driven by a host of depressing statistics, but the most scandalous of all was that children in care accounted for 0.5% of the child population, but as adults accounted for 27% of the prison population. We might as well, as a society, direct them straight to Wormwood Scrubs and the other institutions they are going to end up in.

We did much in government to address that problem, but after 10 years in power, which is when I became Education Secretary, and despite an awful lot of concentration on what we used to call social exclusion, that statistic remained. My point is that this is not a party political joust. This problem is so deeply entrenched that we need to work on the solutions together across this House and not deal with it in a combative way.

Kit Malthouse: On that statistic, which is of course appalling, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it does not necessarily follow that it is the care system that meant that those individuals ended up in prison, and that if they had stayed with their families, they may well have ended up in prison anyway?

Alan Johnson: I do not concur with that at all.

All these problems are profound and multidimensional —of course they are—but I could sum up the problem in my time, although more recent children’s Ministers may sum it up differently: children are pushed into care too easily, moved around too much and kicked out too soon. That is the issue that we were trying to face in the “Care Matters” White Paper in 2007. I will

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focus on the first of those three problems—the fact that they are pushed into care too easily—and on kinship care.

On the point about young people being removed from care too soon, I congratulate the Government on the important step that they took in the Children and Families Act 2014 of insisting that young people in care who reach the age of 18 may remain in care or “stay put”, to use the terminology, with foster carers until the age of 21. In response to the intervention by the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), we used to kick them out at 16. Nowadays, children practically cling on to the door mantel when you try to get rid of them, if I may say so as a father. The average age when children leave home is 27. Kids in care—the most vulnerable children—were kicked out at 16. Of course that contributed to the pressing statistic on where they ended up.

Kit Malthouse: I am fully conscious of that. When I was a councillor, I established the first leaving care service in the country at Westminster Council. It won us beacon status from the then Labour Government. I was trying to make the point that it does not necessarily follow that leaving those children in their families would lead to benign outcomes as opposed to the outcomes of the care system. I fully accept the failures of the care system, but I am not sure that the alternative would have been more benign.

Alan Johnson: I will come on to research that might help the hon. Gentleman because I believe that it is indeed the case, not in every instance of course, that a higher proportion of children who are left to be raised with families—and friends, incidentally—will not end up in the situation that I described.

The Government introduced the welcome change for children in foster care to be able to stay there until they are 21. Can the Minister can tell us in his response whether there are any plans to introduce an analogous provision for children in residential care, as the Education Committee recommended in 2014? It seems ridiculous that children can stay in care with foster parents until they are 21, but that they get kicked out at 18 if they are in residential care.

The main issue that I wish to raise is kinship care. Kinship carers are grandparents, older siblings, other relatives and friends who step in to care for children. Ninety-five per cent. of the children in kinship care are not declared “looked-after” children by the local authority. By keeping children out of the care system, those carers save the taxpayer billions of pounds each year in care costs alone. All the research evidence demonstrates that kinship care has real and substantial benefits for children. They feel more secure, and they have fewer emotional problems and behavioural difficulties. On top of that, the latest piece of research, from last November, states that those children also do better in educational attainment than those in residential care.

There is another issue about the care system for the hon. Member for North West Hampshire to consider. It used to move kids around all the time. That was bad enough, but when they arrived in a new location, they went to the worst schools. They went to the schools that had the vacancies, which were generally the most unpopular and the worst. We introduced a measure that provided

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that schools must accept children in care as a priority, in accordance with what the children and their carers wanted. That is another example of how we can change the care system for the better.

Despite everything that has been done, the system neither encourages nor sufficiently supports the important alternative of kinship care. Yes, there is helpful guidance, but there is no statutory duty that requires local authorities to explore the kinship care option, or even to have the all-important family group conference—the FGC—which is a crucial way of involving the wider family early in the process. In the vast majority of cases, that does not take place until after the child goes into care. It should be held before that decision is made. One of the important aspects of the family group conference is the voice of the young person, which is crucial. It is vital to the process and central to the success of family group conferences. However, not only are they almost always held after a child has been designated as “looked after”, but their number is diminishing as budget cuts force local authorities to retrench.

As a crucial step towards realising the motion, the Government should place a new statutory duty on local authorities so that when they conclude that a child may need to become looked after, they must, other than in emergencies, first identify and consider the willingness and suitability of any relative or other person connected to the child to care for them. Secondly, they should arrange a family group conference run by an accredited FGC service to develop a plan to safeguard and promote a child’s welfare. They should also ensure proper funding for free specialist independent legal advice, as both I and the hon. Member for Telford have mentioned, through the Family Rights Group.

My final point concerns the need to recognise the problems that kinship carers face, and the need for the Government to avoid adding to them through changes to the benefit system. The largest survey of kinship carers in the UK found that 49% of respondents had to give up work permanently. That is often a requirement for taking a child into their care—the authorities insist that they give up work. Some 18% had to give up work temporarily and 23% had to reduce their hours. That creates a family income problem.

The recent Department for Education review of special guardianship and Sir Martin Narey’s imminent review of residential care provide a perfect opportunity to introduce a support framework for kinship care that includes a designated council official to contact when necessary. The Government should also consider extending to kinship carers the measures that are available to adopters, such as paid leave and priority school admissions. More urgently, kinship carers should be exempted from the limiting of child tax credit to two children, the benefit cap and the extension of work conditionality rules to carers of children under five years of age. Let me briefly explain why.

In respect of the benefit cap, many children arrive to live with kinship carers following a crisis. They are deeply traumatised and many have suffered prior abuse. As a result, the behavioural response hoped for by the Department for Work and Pensions, of staying in or returning to work, is just not an option. The relevant drop in income caused by the lower benefit cap will affect more kinship carers, who, as I said earlier, are saving the taxpayer a small fortune. Limiting child tax

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credit to two children will obviously make it financially unviable for some relatives to take on a larger sibling group to keep the family together. The daughter of a grandmother in my constituency died. By taking in the three children, she will be hit by the two-child policy. That is no way to run a civilised social service and welfare state. Incidentally, the cost of an exemption would be about £30 million. It would only require 200 kinship carers to be financially prohibited from taking in a sibling group of three or more, for care and court costs to outweigh that amount. The Government could therefore be making a saving.

The new work conditionality requirements that will be applied to carers of children under five will place obvious and substantial burdens on kinship carers. I say to those on the Treasury Bench that there is an important precedent for the exemptions. Kinship carers have already been exempted from work conditionality requirements for a year after they take on the care of a child. We are not talking about precedents here, but consistency.

This is an important debate, which allows right hon. and hon. Members to raise issues that are aired all too infrequently. Despite the benefits, kinship care is largely overlooked by the media, Governments of various persuasions, and the Prime Minister and his predecessor. In the past two years, there has been much attention paid to adoption. Rightly, it has been the subject of Prime Ministerial speeches, Government initiatives and newly announced funding streams. On kinship care, there has been radio silence. It is time we gave kinship care the recognition and support it deserves, and which children so badly need.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: There is considerable interest in this debate. I am afraid that, if I am to accommodate all interested colleagues, that will have to be reflected in a five-minute limit on Back Bench speeches with immediate effect.

3.44 pm

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). This is a very important subject and they have done extraordinarily well to put it at the forefront of our proceedings in the Chamber.

I want to say how much I agree with the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle in his emphasis on the importance of kinship care. In my constituency, I have encountered situations where a kinship care solution would have been more appropriate than what actually happened. I fully concur with what he said and urge the Government to think very carefully about how they can encourage kinship care.

The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, frequently mentions the importance of strong family life, and I am pleased to note that in the autumn statement the Government significantly extended the troubled families programme. That programme, which began in 2013, is an important step because it signals what everybody knows: that good families are better

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than bad families and that families going through appalling experiences and heading towards crisis must be given the appropriate help. The Government are also right to make it easier for separating parents to go through mediation rather than a full-scale battle. That is another step in the right direction.

It is important that we have high standards of social work in order to avoid some of the pitfalls encountered in recent years. One important element here cropped up when the Education Select Committee last visited the Department: the importance of leadership—not necessarily at director level, but at assistant director level—in ensuring high-quality and timely decisions in social work. The Government should think about the quality, nature and forward planning of social work in local authorities. Another big point is agency co-operation. I would like to hear from the Minister how the ministerial taskforce on child protection is getting on. One of its key priorities should be to encourage better agency co-operation and to make it easier for them to work together. That is an important direction of travel and one that I hope the Select Committee will be pushing.

The pupil premium and children’s centres, which are linked, are important aspects of this debate. The pupil premium is for children in poverty, but there are links between those children and children in troubled families, so we should be using the pupil premium to identify and help the children in jeopardy. The same logic applies to children’s centres, because they are really useful places. I have seen how important they are in my constituency: thousands of children in my constituency are going to well-run children’s centres and benefiting from some extraordinarily good services. We need to put a spotlight on the value of children’s centres, which, certainly in my constituency, are well run and well organised.

I want to make two final points. First, we need to think about having statutory personal, social, health and economic education. I have written to the Secretary of State several times, urging her to think carefully about that, and we continue to press on that front. Finally, I end on an observation made in my meeting recently with the Youth Justice Board. We heard earlier about children getting into difficulty—with prison, criminal activity and so on—so I want to repeat the key point about the need for strong, better and more transparent agency work and co-operation.

3.49 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) is right to express concern about the rising number of children taken into care and to ask whether more can be done to keep families together, but perhaps consideration should also be given, particularly in respect of older children in care homes, to whether the care system could be more flexible in supporting relationships with families, if that is what the child wants. In European countries such as Denmark, there tends to be a much stronger focus on prevention and family support, and that is characterised by the care system operating more flexibly around the family. Residential care is likely to be more local, allowing work with the family.

In March 2015, there were 6,570 children in children’s homes in England. They are likely to have had more placements than children in foster care and to have significant emotional, behavioural and social difficulties.

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Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab): As a children’s home visitor until my election here in May, I am very aware that, as my hon. Friend says, care homes are not the best environments for vulnerable young people, who often have mental health issues, to grow up in. I am sure she agrees that the best approach is to intervene before families go into crisis. Does she agree that unfair cuts to the most deprived local authorities, such as those in Manchester, make it much harder for the authorities with the greatest need to provide services such as Sure Start to the families with the most vulnerable children?

Ann Coffey: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend, and the point he makes is absolutely right. To achieve prevention, funding is needed.

Children in children’s homes are more likely to have more significant problems. In October 2015, the Government announced that Sir Martin Narey would head an independent root-and-branch investigation into children’s residential care. The aim of the review, which I welcome, is to

“help put an end to a life of disadvantage for some of the most vulnerable children in care”.

The Minister will be aware that in 2012 the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, which I chair, conducted a joint inquiry into children missing from care. It looked at the incidence of children going missing from care homes and concluded that one of the biggest problems was the unequal distribution of such homes, as a result of which large numbers of vulnerable children were placed at a distance from their home area. Many placement decisions were last minute, driven by what was available at the time rather than by the needs of the child. This meant that the child was often not involved in planning. Children told our inquiry that they felt “dumped” in children’s homes many miles away from home. This increased their propensity to go missing and come to harm—from child sexual exploitation, for example.

An expert group on the quality of children’s homes was set up and reported to the Department for Education in 2012. The Government then published the first children’s homes data-pack in the same year. One of the key findings of the expert group was indeed that the pattern of supply of children’s homes was uneven across England. One reason for that could be that property prices were so much lower in some areas than others, leading companies to set up in low-cost areas to suit business plans rather than what is best for the children.

The latest figures show that 79% of homes are in the private or voluntary sector. In 2012, homes were charging up to £5,000 a week for children with complex needs. Some £1 billion a year is currently being spent by local authorities on children’s home places, and concerns have been expressed about the number of large private equity firms becoming involved.

The report from the Government’s expert group in 2012 made a number of recommendations to help remedy the unequal distribution in the market, and to mitigate the impacts of children being placed at a distance, but what has actually changed since 2012? In 2012, children’s homes were concentrated in the north-west, the west midlands and the south-east. For example, the north-west has 15% of the children’s homes population, but 25% of the children’s homes.

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The 2014 children’s homes data-pack shows us that the picture has not changed in regard to location of homes and the number of children placed at a distance. In 2014, a third of children were still placed 20 miles or more from their home areas. It is disappointing that progress is slow. We still have still the continuing problem of children being sent to where the homes are rather than the homes being where the children are. All this evidence paints a picture of a market that is run in the interests of the providers, not in the interests of children and young people.

I very much welcome the introduction by the Government of new regulations recommended by the expert group, particularly the need for a director of children’s services to approve a decision to place a child in a distant placement. However, I am not clear about how the effect of these regulations is being monitored for assessing better outcomes for safeguarding children, particularly those in distant placements. I would be grateful if the Minister provided some information on that.

The 2014 data-pack makes it clear that local authorities placing children far from home are not placing them in poor-quality provision, but that the main problem is one of distance. This means that the placing authority is unable to rely on any local knowledge or intelligence about the quality of homes or the suitability of their location. It also gives rise to significant travel times, limiting social work oversight, and the distance between the child and their family might limit relationships and undermine the scope of work with the family.

There are, of course, other issues, such as the quality of staffing, but it is the geographical local of children’s homes that limits choice for social workers and for the child at the point of placement. Unsatisfactory placements of children only compound the difficulties that they may already have, adding to their distrust of the system and causing more to go missing, with the subsequent risk of harm involved.

Evidence continues to point to a failure of commissioning in relation to the unequal distribution of homes. After all, local authorities are the only buyers of these places, and commissioning cannot simply be the sum total of decisions made according to available capacity. It must be proactive, having regard to the longer-term needs of the children whom local authorities look after, now and in the future. As I said earlier, the European model, in which residential care is likely to be local, allows families to visit, which provides an opportunity for constructive work with parents. That approach aims to support the resources of the family. At present, families all too often feel that they have been identified as failing, and that all decisions have been taken away from them. Local provision is the key.

3.55 pm

Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con): I commend the Members who proposed the motion. They did so for a laudable reason: they see the value of strong families and their irreplaceable role in raising children as the granite on which our society is founded, and their desire to work to help children stay with their families is to be praised. They also rightly recognise the severe limitations of our child protection system, and seek to keep children out of it. Early intervention, prevention, and encouragement and support for kinship care are intelligent parts of a coherent strategy.

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It should be noted, however, that this debate is not about strong families, functional families, or even the care system. It is about families and households who all too often put the lives and well-being of children in serious danger. It is about children in care who have been removed from their families because they are not safe, and because those families will not help them to grow up to be healthy, independent adults. For such children, stable families are already out of reach. When that happens, the solution is not to dither, apply half measures, or wait and see. It falls to the state to step in and protect children, and, if needs be, to remove them from danger.

That should never be done lightly, and it is, of course, far from ideal, but it is done none the less because we recognise that waiting to see whether parents can improve, or trying to improve the home, is often a very risky path to take. In recent years, we have seen again and again that the “wait and see” approach—the failure to act quickly enough—has had horrendous consequences. I believe that the cost of repeatedly failing to act frequently outweighs the potential upside of trying to enable children to stay with their families. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, most children in care eventually recognise that it was the right path for them. They recognise the issues that led to their being in care in the first place, and the fact that those dreadful situations demanded action.

Once it has been properly established that a child is in danger and there are no safe kinship alternatives, we have no choice other than to act. That applies to cases of severe neglect, but it applies especially to cases of child cruelty. In matters of cruelty to children, there are no second chances. There are no second chances for the child or baby who is at risk of being permanently harmed, or even, sadly, killed.

Lucy Allan: Does my hon. Friend agree that children are taken into the care system who have been neither harmed nor neglected? I referred earlier to actual or potential emotional abuse. Very subjective judgments can be made.

Kit Malthouse: I recognise that, but, as I said to my hon. Friend earlier, I have the general sense—having worked with the care system when I was a councillor, and subsequently—that in the vast majority of cases this is the right decision for the children concerned. There are some cases in which the system does fail, but the fact is that most children are removed because they are in some kind of danger or peril, whether it be emotional or physical.

There should not be any second chances for parents who put their children at risk or deliberately harm them. I must emphasise that to make that case is not to argue for one minute that, ordinarily, the state is better placed than families to look after children. Nothing is, and it is not helpful or right that children in care are still so vulnerable, or that, in many cases, they have been destined for such miserable lives after they leave. However, the fact that we fail too many children in care does not mean that we have too many children in care, or that it is wrong to remove such children from the families who were endangering them. That simply does not follow.

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What follows is that we should be doing more for children in care and continuing with the practice of intervening quickly when the need arises.

My rejection, sadly, of today’s motion is in two parts. The first, as I have already said, is that given that the danger of failing to intervene is so strong, I actually think we should be intervening more. The second is that all this is predicated on a drastic improvement in the care system that the Government have also indicated they are determined to make.

The care system exists to keep children safe where their families have failed them. The burden of looking after these children falls on you, me—everyone. In arguing for special measures to help children stay with their families “safely”, proponents of the motion acknowledge that they are not safe with their family in the first place. Considering the degree of damage abuse and neglect can inflict in a very short space of time, we cannot take risks or gamble with their lives. In many cases, children should be taken into care sooner.

Alan Johnson: I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. Nobody supporting this motion or sponsoring it does not believe that children who are in danger should be removed from that danger quickly. His whole contribution and opposition to this motion is based on a total misconception. What we are saying is there are many children who go into care—and their voice is important, by the way—who actually would be better placed, and happier, with family members. I suggest that that proposition should unite the House, not be defeated by some suggestion that people disagree that children in danger should be removed from that danger quickly.

Kit Malthouse: I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says and I have mentioned kinship care twice in my speech. I absolutely agree that if a safe alternative can be found in an extended family, that should be encouraged. I was pleased to hear his speech and I do think the Government could do more to support that. The motion, however, does not mention kinship care, and it laments the rise in the number of children in the care system. The point I am trying to make is that while we as a social care system seek to intervene with a family and try to make the family home safer, there is still a child who is remaining in the home who may still be damaged. We have seen some horrendous situations where the social care system failed to act sufficiently quickly. My view is that if we hide behind the idea that we may be able to make some progress with the family, we are fundamentally gambling with the lives of young people.

Lucy Allan: In my opening remarks I referred to the fact that one in 100 children are subject to child protection investigations. It is no secret that my own son was subject to a child protection investigation, and often children in families who are not well-placed to protect themselves from that type of forceful state intervention end up in care when they do not need to be there.

Kit Malthouse: As I said in an earlier intervention, my experience of the care system is not that the country is teeming with malign social workers looking for children to purloin from their parents and shove into the care system. These are professional people who investigate largely professionally. Errors are made, as in all bureaucratic

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systems, but nevertheless their motives are good and right, and more often than not they see cause for alarm that requires action.

My concern about this motion is that the tragic case of baby P, which has been referred to, led to a rise in the number of children in care, and I think it was generally accepted that before that case the child protection system was not functioning correctly. I was tangentially involved in the Victoria Climbié affair. She came through Westminster’s hands for two weeks. Pleasingly, we did everything right, but that is another case where the care system had failed. My point is not necessarily that the system is operating incorrectly now; it may well be operating correctly. My concern about the motion is about the signal it sends to social workers about the desire of this House that they should attempt to leave children in possibly dysfunctional and perhaps damaging situations for longer while they attempt the much harder task of trying to turn the home around.

4.4 pm

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I support the motion wholeheartedly because one of the best things we can possibly do is to improve the prospects for children to be able to stay at home successfully with their birth parents. However, many things need to be done in order to achieve that, not least of which is to address the availability of support for parents who would otherwise be in a situation in which their children might be at risk. Some Members have already commented on the cuts to public services and the contribution they have made to undermining the ability of parents to provide good parenting. That is an important point, and this is one of the big areas in which the Government need to take a long, hard look at the support and resources available, not least in local government and the NHS.

Equally, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) said, the Government need to take a wider look at all the options available. A certain option might be right for many children, but it will not always be the right option for all children. This must be about putting the child at the centre of all the decisions that are taken. My right hon. Friend is right to say that kinship care is often not considered, but it should always be an option if members of an extended family are available. The motion makes it clear that we are trying to discuss that matter today.

We should do all that we can to avoid having such high numbers of children in care. The figure was 86,000 last year, and we should be trying to reduce it at all costs, but that involves significant early intervention and prevention work. It involves working with families whose children might be at risk and preventing the kind of neglect and abuse that leads to children being taken into care in the first place.

I am sorry, Mr Speaker, I should have mentioned at the outset my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am no longer a foster carer but I was one briefly recently.

One of the challenges is to ensure that we have the workforce to deliver the necessary services. We must support, encourage and celebrate the work of social workers and all those who work with children and with families in supporting them and trying to prevent the kind of breakdown that leads to children going into care.

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We should be supporting, encouraging, recruiting and training the very best people to become foster carers or to work in residential children’s care. We also need to support kinship carers and parents to enable them to provide the very best quality of care in these circumstances.

As has been said, we should look at children in care as though they were our own. The concept of corporate parenting is another fine example of something the Labour Government introduced, but I do not believe that it is practised to the extent that it should be in this country. We all have a responsibility to ensure that every child in the public care system gets the support, encouragement and opportunities that they would get if they were our own children, and that includes the extension of staying put to 21 and beyond, not just in foster care but in residential care as well.

We also need to learn from other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) talked about Denmark. Denmark has a long-term commitment to support for children through the use of social pedagogy and through the development and training of experienced residential workers who live with children over a long period of time to create family units. That is a successful model, and there are successful examples of it in this country. Perhaps the Government should look at those examples too.

Permanence for children is incredibly important, whether with their birth family, with kinship carers, in foster care or in residential care. Finding the right option for each individual child is the most important thing. We should learn from best practice in this country and around the world. Speed is also incredibly important when making these decisions, and any decision on whether a child should remain with their birth family should be made quickly and should always reflect what is right for the individual child.

4.9 pm

Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con): I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this important debate. My hon. Friend speaks from more direct and personal experience than any of us would like to have. Nobody could have a higher opinion of and greater respect for social workers and child protection officers than I do. At the time I was born, my mother was running a local authority children’s home in central Birmingham, so the first years of my life were spent living in that home. Even at that age, I was able to see daily the dedication, care, commitment and love shown by the workers in that children’s home, but I also know that even the most compassionate and dedicated social worker cannot possibly replace the care and love of a family. That is why we must do everything we can, where possible—where there is no threat of abuse or serious neglect—to help keep families together.

It seems that the pendulum has swung too far towards an assumption that where any kinds of concern are raised, one option on the table is to take a child into care. We desperately need to address that. Nobody would argue against removing a child from an environment where it is at risk of abuse or serious neglect, but in too many of the cases we see at our surgeries that is simply not the assessment that is being made.

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Shortly before Christmas, I came across a constituency case which appeared to me, having read the magistrate’s report, to be based primarily on a chaotic lifestyle in an untidy house. Those issues clearly need addressing, but they were not serious threats to the welfare of the children or certainly to their safety. If more support could be put in place to help with those issues, it must be better for the families, particularly for the children, and much more economic for local authorities and for the Government.

One aspect of the care system that has not yet been referred to is how we approach the mental health of parents. A lot of extremely valuable work has been done by a number of Members, particularly the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is no longer in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), in establishing the principle of parity of esteem between physical and mental health. However, that approach is simply not being taken where the care system and assessments about taking children into care are concerned. Children are being taken into care when parents are suffering from mental illnesses, whether that relates to depression or other mental health issues.

Yesterday, a former Labour councillor in my constituency wrote to me to highlight a case that she had been involved with in the past. It concerned a mother of three young children who had nursed her husband through the advanced stages of cancer. Sadly her husband did pass away, the mother struggled to cope, as many of us would, and the three children were taken into care. Rather than making sure that the mother received the support she needed to look after the children or to find a temporary solution, the children were taken into care. The mother therefore lost not only her husband but her children, and not only did the three children lose their father, but in a short period of time they were taken away from their mother. They were put into care out of borough, so they were at a different school and they had, in effect, lost their friends, too. This really matters because, as has been said, on any metric we can measure, the outcomes for children in care are significantly worse than they are for the population as a whole. That applies in respect of employment, housing, the criminal justice system and educational achievement, and it has to be because of the thing we cannot measure: the enormous psychological and emotional impact of taking children away from their families. The safety and welfare of children must come first, but I do not think that always applies—

Mr Speaker: Order. I call Fiona Mactaggart.

4.14 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I agree with the focus of this debate. Sadly, our care system in Slough has not protected children effectively, and I am particularly sad that the Children’s Services Trust, which the Government set up to improve services, has apparently not done so very effectively. The Minister will be aware of a case involving a two-year-old, about which I have written to the Secretary of State. I would like to see better monitoring of Children’s Services Trusts from the centre.