16 May 2024
Aldous calls for prompt compensation for women affected by state pension age changes

Peter Aldous, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women, praises the work of the Ombudsman and speaks in support of a motion calling on the Government to deliver prompt compensation to women born in the 1950s who had their State Pension age raised. He calls for action before the summer recess and for the Government to act at speed as was done with the furlough scheme in the pandemic.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee on granting it. The purpose of the debate is to consider the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report of 21 March and how best to implement its recommendations.

In brief, the following issues arise from the report. First, the PHSO found that in 2005, the Department for Work and Pensions,

“failed to take adequate account of the need for targeted and individually tailored information”

to be shared with women affected by the changes to the state pension age. That amounted to maladministration and resulted in the six complainants whose cases were considered not being able to do things differently or make informed, mitigating decisions. The PHSO concluded that they should be compensated for that.

Secondly, the PHSO took the highly unusual step of laying its report before Parliament, due to its concerns that the DWP would fail to provide a remedy. Although the PHSO has put forward a suggestion as to what the compensation should be, it has asked Parliament to intervene to agree a mechanism for remedy and to hold the Government to account.

Thirdly, the PHSO points out that it is “extremely rare” for an organisation that it investigates not to accept and act on its recommendations. It makes the observation that a failure to comply with its recommendations represents a constitutional gap in protecting the rights of citizens who have been failed by a public body and in ensuring access to justice.

My interest in the injustice arises from the fact that, for approximately eight years, as regular as clockwork, constituents have been highlighting to me the enormous challenges and hardship that they have faced and endured. For the past four years, I have had the privilege of co-chairing the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women with, first, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and, more recently, the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). I take the opportunity to thank our predecessors, the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton).

It is important to thank the PHSO for its work and the duty that it has carried out. It has received criticism for the time that it has taken and for the narrow remit of considering six cases that some are concerned do not fully reflect the injustice that 1950s-born women as a whole have had to endure. However, it would have been very easy for the PHSO to have decided that this was not a case for it to investigate. Instead, it has not shied away from the past. The investigation has taken a long time because it is complicated and there was a need to get it right.

The PHSO has provided us with a snapshot. It is up to us—Parliament, Government and the DWP—to extrapolate and put right a problem that may well extend much more widely. To do that, the PHSO has provided some guidelines that we need to follow. Parliament should take immediate steps to find a resolution for those who do not have time on their side. Each case should be considered on its own merits. Finite resources are not an excuse for failing to provide a fair remedy. If Parliament chooses to do nothing, that will undermine the ombudsman. The Department for Work and Pensions should respect what Parliament recommends. There must be a commitment from Government to take on board the PHSO’s findings and to work collegiately with Parliament in finding and then implementing a fair and just remedy.

A wider issue that needs to be considered, perhaps in the first instance by the right hon. Member for East Ham and his Committee, is the breakdown in communication and implementation of policy in the DWP, going back over 30 years. I accept that the Department’s remit is large, challenging and complicated, but the PHSO highlights repeated failures in the Department’s communication of state pension reforms.

Sir John Hayes 

We must not let cause become more important that effect. As my hon. Friend described, it is right that we look at why and how this happened, but what really matters is what happened, because what the WASPI women need is action quickly. If we were to spend a great deal of time looking at the genesis of the issue, I am not sure that quick action would be delivered, so I endorse what the right hon. Member for East Ham said about establishing criteria that can be effected with reasonable speed.

Peter Aldous 

I thank my right hon. Friend for that point, which he makes quite well. I am diverting slightly from the main cause and theme, but I think he and I are on the same page.

As I said, I am concerned about repeated failures in the Department’s communications. Only last Saturday, a constituent highlighted to me how the introduction of the new state pension penalises those women born in 1951 and 1952. The End Frozen Pensions campaign points out that 85% of frozen pensioners did not know of the policy’s existence prior to moving abroad.

Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn) (Con)

On that point, will my hon. Friend give way?

Peter Aldous 

Very briefly, because this is a side issue.

Sara Britcliffe 

The report acknowledges that the DWP is now modernising its system so that people are informed, but does he agree that moving to a modernised system might pose a risk, specifically to pensioners who are digitally excluded, that something similar could happen again in future?

Peter Aldous 

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is a side point to the main point, but nevertheless the PHSO has pinpointed that issue. These are debates for another day. I suspect the right hon. Member for East Ham and his Committee need to look at these issues in more detail, but the PHSO has shone a spotlight on a wider problem.

The aims of the APPG that I co-chair with the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles are threefold: first, to represent those women who have been treated unjustly by the short-notice changes to the state pension age, 280,000 of whom have died, according to WASPI, since the start of the campaign; secondly, to develop and promote policy solutions to support 1950s-born women and their families who do not have access to their pension and are facing mental and physical health consequences; and thirdly, to feed the views and experiences of 1950s-born women into future policy decisions relating to state pensions and welfare.

Over the years, the APPG has had regular evidence-gathering sessions with various representative groups, and we have considered policies and initiatives to best help and assist them. In January 2022, the APPG made its own submission to the PHSO about the level of compensation that should be provided. I give special thanks to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish for the work that he and his office did putting that together. Based on the evidence presented to us from across the UK, we reached what, for us, was the logical conclusion that level 6 of the PHSO’s compensation scale should apply. Subsequently, we refined that recommendation by proposing that compensation should be provided in a bell curve, with those who received least notice of the longest postponement receiving the most compensation, and those who received longer notice of shorter increase receiving lesser sums.

Sir Julian Lewis 

May I take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for his key role in the APPG? I put on the record the dignified and well-informed views of local WASPI co-ordinators in my part of the world, Shelagh Simmons and Sal Robinson. We heard an intervention suggesting each case should be judged on its individual circumstances. I can see the merit in that, but it would have a devastating effect on the speed with which we would come to conclusions. What balance does my hon. Friend think should be struck on those two factors?

Peter Aldous 

My sense is that there is a need to strike a balance, as the PHSO says. A way forward is beginning to emerge from the work of the APPG and the Select Committee, and I will elaborate on that.

Since the PHSO published its report on 21 March, the APPG has sought to play its role, as part of Parliament, in finding a fair and just mechanism, as quickly as possible, as the PHSO asked Parliament to do. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles and I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and we have subsequently met the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who is now back in his place. I thank him for the hearing he gave us.

Last Tuesday, the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles and I appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee —likewise, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham and his colleagues for the fair and full reception they provided. We are holding our own evidence sessions with the various representative groups; the first three sessions took place on Monday and there are more to follow. This is a complicated matter. While the APPG is yet to reach a settled and final recommendation about the form a compensation mechanism should take, it is fair to say that ideas are fast evolving and are pointing in a direction.

Martin Docherty-Hughes 

Will the hon. Gentleman advise the House, as well as WASPI women in West Dunbartonshire and across the UK, on whether one of those recommendations will be for a ministerial apology, on behalf of the Department, for where we are now?

Peter Aldous 

PHSO suggests an apology from the DWP should be encapsulated in what it comes up with as a way forward. The DWP’s own guidelines include an apology as well.

I will focus on the form of compensation redress, which is emerging in a little more detail. While the PHSO has suggested that compensation should be paid at level 4 on their scale, there is disquiet among those affected that that is too low and that level 6 should apply, in line with the APPG’s recommendations. The PHSO comments that a flat rate is easiest to implement but not perfect, and that there may well be a need for a balancing act, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) suggested in his intervention.

The PHSO also suggests that the National Audit Office may be able to provide guidance on how to structure a compensation scheme. The WASPI group has emphasised, as we have heard, the need for speed, simplicity and sensitivity, and it recommends that the DWP should bring forward proposals for a financial redress scheme to Parliament before the summer recess. It also proposes that higher payments should be targeted at those most impacted.

The Work and Pensions Committee is to be commended for getting out its recommendations in less than 10 days after its evidence session. It also asked the Government to bring forward proposals for the summer recess. It, too, proposed that payments should be based on the extent of change to an individual’s state pension age, and the notice of change that they received. It adds that there should be some flexibility for individuals to be able to make the case for a higher level of compensation based on experiencing direct financial loss.

Clear parameters as to the form that the compensation should take, I sense, are rapidly evolving. Parliament, in the past two months since the PHSO published its report, in its various different guises is playing its role to the full. I would suggest that now is the time for the Government to step up to the plate. A mechanism should be put in place before the summer recess. I acknowledge that the matter is complicated, and that there is a need for contemplation and reflection, but we should have in mind that the most notable achievement of this Government is that, under enormous pressure in a very short timescale, they put in place a furlough scheme that saved hundreds of thousands of jobs and got us through covid. There is no reason why the Government cannot move with such speed and alacrity again. I would add that failure to comply with the PHSO’s recommendations would be almost completely unprecedented over the 70 years that the ombudsman has existed and would drive a coach and horses through what is an integral part of our parliamentary system of democratic checks and balances. In conclusion, I support this motion.