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Harriett Baldwin responds to debate on income for retirees

17th November 2015

Harriett Baldwin responds to a back bench MP’s debate on Government policy on a guaranteed income for retirees and the protection of pensioners following the pension freedoms introduced in April.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am not quite sure what the sporting achievements mentioned earlier are, but I look forward to hearing about them.

Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair): I think the word “achievements” might be stretching it a little bit, but we will pass over that for the time being. [Laughter.]

Harriett Baldwin: I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing the debate and making a thoughtful, constructive contribution to our national debate on securing a guaranteed income for retirees. Perhaps I should not confess this, but if Wikipedia is correct, I am the one who should declare an interest as being closest to retirement age of all those speaking in the debate—but perhaps Wikipedia may not be accurate. That has happened before.

Roger Mullin: I should thank the Minister very much for her comment.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman wears it well.

The debate is timely, because we are just over six months into the pension freedoms, and are beginning to get data on what pensioners or retirees have been doing with those freedoms, and about use of the free and impartial guidance from Pension Wise, which was set up by the Government. As we speak, life expectancy is growing by about five hours a day in this country, which makes it all the more important that we have this debate and agree on the aspiration to ensure that hard-working people are in a position to fund a comfortable and, we hope, increasingly lengthy retirement.

Against the background that I have set out, the Government introduced radical reforms giving people freedom and choice in how they access their own hard-earned retirement savings, replacing an effective obligation on pensioners to purchase an annuity—a product that often they did not shop around for and that may not have been right for their circumstances.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), whom I congratulate on securing this important debate, mentioned at one point reinstating the requirement to annuitise. The old open market system failed many vulnerable consumers, as my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned, and many with impaired life expectancy were shunted by providers into poorly paying and inappropriate annuity contracts. Will she comment on that?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend is right; the world where we obliged people to buy an annuity income with their retirement savings was not perfect. Often they did not shop around—the data from the Financial Conduct Authority suggest that about eight out of 10 consumers could have got a better deal by shopping around—so I cannot agree with what I believe was SNP policy. That seems to be to end the current situation where there is more flexibility, and once again to require people to buy an annuity. However, I recognise that Members across the House have concerns about customers and how they are supported as they make perhaps their most important long-term financial decision, other than purchasing a home.

Ian Blackford: I just want to clarify something. I absolutely share the concern that the annuity market was not working properly. Where there is a difference of opinion is that we believe that the market should be reformed. We need greater choice in the annuity market: for example, we need to think about how we explain index-linked products in the annuity market, and circumstances such as lower life expectancy must be reflected. We must consider those things in the light of experience of what has happened with pension freedom.

Harriett Baldwin: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I agree that we need to evaluate the measures, which is why this is such a timely debate. It is extremely important that, as people take advantage of the new pension freedoms, they have the right information and the tools they need to make an informed and confident decision about their financial future. I recognise that there is a range of different circumstances and that one size does not fit all.

It might be helpful if I summarise some of the changes made over the past five years to the pension landscape to strengthen the finances of people in retirement. They include ensuring that there is no enforced retirement age at 65, and strengthening the first pillar of retirement income, the basic state pension, which now rises with a triple-lock—increasing by the greater of 2.5%, earnings or inflation every year. That has been very important cumulatively over the past five years—the income replacement of the state pension is now at its highest level since 1992—and we have pledged to continue that throughout this Parliament.

Nick Thomas-Symonds: I refer back to the Hansard quotation from 20 June 2011 that I cited about the transitional provisions for women born in the 1950s who have lost out under the new state pension provisions. Can the Minister update the House about what has happened with that policy and how the transitional provisions will be introduced?

Harriett Baldwin: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am just setting out the background. I will address the points that colleagues raised later in my speech.

The changes we are making to simplify the state pension are also important, because they are going to set a new level for the state pension that is higher than the means-tested threshold that we have had in this country historically. That is very important, because we do not want those who draw down their retirement savings to be thrown on to means-tested benefits. I believe I am right in saying that that is a crucial difference from the situation in Australia. We have also safeguarded support for older people in other ways, such as providing free bus passes, eye tests, television licences and so on.

The changes we made in April are an integral part of the whole landscape. I will describe for the benefit of all hon. Members what we think success for the reforms looks like: a vibrant and competitive retirement income market with a range of different products that give people the flexibility and security that is right for them, and well informed, engaged consumers who can access the guidance and advice they need. As more people are automatically enrolled in employer schemes, more people engage with the process. More than 5 million more people are now saving for a retirement income than were in 2010, and by the full roll-out in a couple of years’ time, we will have almost 9 million additional new savers through automatic enrolment, saving £15 billion a year more in aggregate.

Ian Blackford: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; she is being very gracious with her time. As I said, we fully support auto-enrolment. It is fantastic that there has been an increase in saving and that both employers and employees are contributing, but will she reflect on the situation that could develop? People will have a greater ability to access the pension pot that they are saving into and take out cash at 55, but I am concerned that employers may be disincentivised from contributing to the pension scheme if they see that those who benefit from it can walk away with a cash pot at 55.

Harriett Baldwin: Methinks the hon. Gentleman is worrying too much. At this point, I think we will just welcome the fact that £15 billion a year more is going into pension saving in this country. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) can say to her generation that the earlier they start, the better, given the cumulative impact of the wonders of compound interest. Nevertheless, I take on board the point the hon. Gentleman made.

The hon. Gentleman said that providers may not have time to get ready and may not have the right kinds of products. In fact, providers have stepped up to the challenge: the systems requirements were admittedly very challenging, but more than 90% of people are now being offered flexibility within their existing scheme and something like a quarter of the largest firms are planning to launch new products in the next six months, so there has been real innovation and engagement with what customers want. We have moved away from the inflexibility of the old annuity market.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the recent data from the ABI stating that £4.7 billion was paid out in the first six months. The first six months will not necessarily be representative of the settled state of the market, because obviously there has been a lot of pent-up demand, but it is fair to say that in that six-month period £2.5 billion has been invested in income drawdown products and £2.2 billion in annuities. That does not suggest that people are shying away from the annuity market, which we hope continues to be successful and an important part of people’s retirement planning. I am delighted that so many people have already taken advantage of the freedoms and that many providers have stepped up to deliver for their members.

Many hon. Members asked about Pension Wise, the Government’s free and impartial guidance service. It, too, is playing an important role. There have been more than 30,000 guidance appointments and 1.7 million hits on its website so far. Hon. Members alleged that only one in 10 people are making use of Pension Wise, but we dispute that in the sense that people will be getting financial advice, sometimes from a regulated adviser, or they may get information, guidance or advice through their provider. There is a range of different ways in which people can inform themselves; Pension Wise is one of them. It is free, impartial and backed by the Government.

Pension Wise prompts users to consider their life expectancy and any health issues and lifestyle factors they have, and it links to the Office for National Statistics life expectancy calculator, which I am sure everyone in the room has visited. All in all, that is excellent news, but we are always on the lookout for ways to make the service more useful. Last month’s report from the Work and Pensions Committee, of which the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South is a member, was welcome. It noted the progress we have already made in ensuring that the reforms deliver for consumers, but made it clear that the job is not yet done.

In line with the Committee’s recommendations, we are considering a number of developments to make Pension Wise even more useful. For example, we are looking at how appointments can be tailored to individuals. In the summer Budget, we opened it up to people from the age of 50 onwards, and we are developing more online tools for the website and calculators that people can use to see how the new pension freedoms relate to their particular circumstances. We are trying to make the website more interactive, and the team has done a fantastic job in delivering that to such a tight timeframe. We are looking to amend the content of Pension Wise appointments to ensure they are more tailored to people in the 50 to 55 age bracket, who are not yet able to take advantage of the pension freedoms but want to start thinking about the options available to them.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) rightly mentioned the financial advice market review. I am delighted to hear that he supports the initiative. The Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority are reviewing what he called the advice gap—the fact that between guidance and paid-for financial advice, there is a gap for ordinary people who do not want to pay for a financial adviser or are not able to afford one at their stage in life. The aim of the review is to come up with a package of reforms, along the lines of those that the hon. Gentleman outlined, to ensure the financial advice market works for everybody. I hope he will write to the review with his recommendations.

Advice, in and of itself, is not enough. It is important that we supplement our guidance provision and review it on an ongoing basis. We must ensure that we make the most of Pension Wise, which focuses on pension freedoms, the Money Advice Service, which focuses on some of the other aspects of financial markets, and the Pensions Advisory Service, which is run out of the Department for Work and Pensions. We must make those services more effective for consumers. Alongside the financial advice market review, we are also looking at the guidance and hope to have some findings ahead of next year’s Budget, so that people get the help they need to take such important long-term decisions.

Several hon. Members mentioned scams, and the Work and Pensions Committee report also flagged that risk, which we recognise is not new. Pension scammers were previously trying to get people to take money out of their pensions before the age of 55, causing a lot of harm in the marketplace, but I agree that it is an important matter. Given that consumers have been given unprecedented freedom and choice in how they access their retirement savings, we appreciate that fraudsters will use that as an opportunity to try and exploit people. An effective strategy to target scams must bring together all the relevant parts of Government and work with providers to focus on both the prevention and the disruption of scams. That is what we are doing and will continue to do. We have set up Project Bloom, a multi-agency taskforce led by the National Crime Agency, which is joining up the various Departments involved, the regulators, anti-fraud groups and police forces to tackle scams. It is worth reiterating here how important it is that we remind consumers that they should never engage with anyone who telephones them out of the blue offering help with their pension. I encourage all hon. Members to get that message out widely in their communities. I emphasise that Pension Wise will never call without a consumer having previously asked them to.

The pensions regulators have their own pension scam campaigns to raise awareness of the issue. The FCA runs ScamSmart and the Pensions Regulator runs Scorpion. Warnings are sent out with paperwork from pension providers and both of them give advice to businesses and consumers on how to protect against scams. Pension Wise also alerts customers to the risk of scams during guidance sessions and on its website, and firms have a duty to flag the risk of investment scams, when appropriate, to their members as part of the FCA’s retirement risk warning rules. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, who asked me about this during a Work and Pensions Committee hearing, wanted to know about some of the numbers. So far this year, since the pension freedoms were launched, incidents reported to Action Fraud are lower than the year before, but I completely agree with her that we must remain on top of this. To be frank, we have to be tough, because one scam succeeding is one too many.

Moving on to women who have been affected by the change in pension age, I am probably one of the few women affected who actually welcomes the fact that I will be able to do this wonderful job for longer, but I realise that not everyone feels that way. To respond to the questions from the hon. Member for Torfaen about the number of meetings that have been held, the number of updates and the transition protection and his Hansard reference, which shows what an effective researcher he is—he is a published biographer—I will defer to my colleague Baroness Altman, who will write to him with the details.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South also asked about the Pension Wise data and when it will be published. In ministerial speak, I believe that the word is “shortly” so it should be up on the website soon. We will write to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee as soon as that happens so that he is the first to know.

I have responded to most hon. Members’ points, but I will remain on my feet in case anyone feels that they have not had a chance to ask their question or to get one answered.

Roger Mullin: I thank the Minister for giving way at this late stage. Does she agree that, as I mentioned earlier, women face particular risks and therefore require particular additional support and guidance to ensure that they make the most of their futures?

Harriett Baldwin: I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman is a passionate feminist and thinks it important that men and women have the same pension age. I appreciate, however, that the process of transition from the much earlier age at which women were retiring will, depending on people’s circumstances, have posed a range of challenges, of which the Government are well aware. As a constituency MP, I am also well aware of such issues. I will write to the hon. Member for Torfaen and the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) with more specific points from my noble colleague.

Shall I conclude with my impassioned concluding remarks, Mr Betts, or is everyone happy to stop there?

Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair): It is up to you, Minister. You have time if you wish to impassion us.

Harriett Baldwin: I will say something in conclusion as we have time.

I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate. How people access an income in retirement is an incredibly important question. It is also an issue of huge international importance. I have summarised a range of changes that have been made over the past five years. The more recent pension freedoms are major changes and it is important that we get them right, which is why the Government and the regulator will continue actively to monitor the post-reform retirement landscape closely.

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