Stephen Timms – 2023 Speech on Raising the State Pension Age to 68

The speech made by Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2023.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on securing this Backbench Business debate, which gives us the chance to ask for the Government’s views on this topic of great importance and enormous public interest. I am delighted that the Pensions Minister, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), and the former Pensions Minister, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), are in their places on the Front Bench.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Amber Valley said. The idea of spending a third of adult life in retirement is a sensible yardstick to run with. He made the point, in passing, about the importance of implementing the recommendations of the auto-enrolment review, and I agree with him that that is important. We are repeatedly told that it will be done in the mid-2020s, but time to implement it before 2025 is either running out or has possibly already run out.

In my remarks, I will focus on the process we are in. I recall the wise words of David Cameron, who said:

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

He argued—rightly, in my view—for a culture of openness in government. One of the results of his view was the 2010 protocol on publication of all Government social research, which was most recently updated last year. It states:

“Principle 1: The products from government social research and analysis will be made publicly available”,

and that research should be published “promptly”, within 12 weeks of completion.

For a number of years, that was, to their credit, the Government’s approach. In 2017, when the first review of state pension age was undertaken for the Government by John Cridland—as the hon. Member for Amber Valley has pointed out—his report, and the report of the Government Actuary, were both published on 23 March 2017, nearly four months before the DWP’s own review was set out on 19 July 2017, shortly after the hon. Member for Hexham took up his former post as Pensions Minister in June 2017.

I have often expressed great regret that the Department, for some reason or other—perhaps reflecting a different approach across Government—has abandoned the practice set out by David Cameron and instead now resists publication of research and analysis, or delays it for as long as it possibly can. Preventing public discussion no doubt has the benefit of allowing Ministers to avoid having to answer difficult questions, but it has the disastrous drawback of worsening policy outcomes. The policy cannot be informed by public debate before the decisions are made, because the evidence that would allow a debate is not available. The Government publication protocol was watered down a little last year, but its essential gist remains unchanged. It says, for example:

“The primary purpose of social research commissioned and conducted by government is to inform…policy and delivery, but it also plays a role in wider policy debate.”

That is quite right, but, as we have discussed in the Chamber on various occasions, in the DWP the requirements of the protocol are simply ignored. They are not being fulfilled.

I have been hoping very much that the new ministerial team will turn over a new leaf and take a more enlightened approach. Indeed, the new Secretary of State has hinted that he is considering the advantages of greater openness. But here we have a flagrant example of his predecessor’s bad habits of hiding analysis and evidence until it is convenient to the Government to release them. Instead of publishing the evidence four months before the Government’s decision, as was done in 2017—around the time the former pensions Minister, the hon. Member for Hexham, was appointed—the Department is keeping the evidence hidden until it makes its announcement “early in 2023”. Presumably, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley has suggested, that will be at the time of the Budget next month.

In my brief contribution to this important debate, I mainly want to press the Minister to publish now both the report by the independent reviewer, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, which the Secretary of State received on 16 September last year—more than four months ago—and the related Government Actuary’s report, which was submitted to Ministers on 5 October. Publish them now. Why have they not been published already? What possible benefit can there be in keeping this important work and evidence hidden for all this time?

The Select Committee has published today an exchange of letters with the Minister on the subject. When asked why these reports are not being published before the Government’s announcement as they were for the 2017 review, the Minister, who is in her place, replied that

“this is a different publication schedule to the last review, the issues are still under consideration and so we think this approach is more appropriate.”

In other words, they appear to be saying, “We don’t want anyone to see the evidence until we have made up our mind. This is still under consideration, so we think it is not appropriate to publish the evidence.” Surely, there ought to be a public debate about all this before the Government make their decision, not afterwards. This instinct of hiding things, not disclosing them, and not complying with the requirements of the cross-Government protocol is very damaging to the Government’s ability to make good policy.

Surely, Ministers should take advantage of public debate to inform their decisions, rather than refusing to show anyone the evidence until after the Government have made up their mind. What has become of David Cameron’s belief in sunlight? We are talking here not about confidential advice to Ministers—there is no requirement to publish that—but rather about expert analysis that will eventually be published, and which sets out the evidence that will underpin the Government’s decision. Publish it now so that everybody can see it. The protocol says that

“analysis should be published promptly…as early as possible following agreement of the final output.”

So it should be. The recent independent review was announced in December 2021. The terms of reference said that it should explore what metrics the Government should take into account when considering how to set state pension age. They stated that it should include a consideration of recent trends in life expectancy in every part of the United Kingdom; whether it remained right for there to be a fixed proportion of adult life that people should, on average, expect to spend over state pension age, and what metrics would enable state pension costs, and the importance of sharing those fairly between generations, to be taken into account.

The Select Committee agreed months ago that once Baroness Neville-Rolfe’s review had been published, we would take evidence on it, including from her, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, before the Government announced their decision. Now that the Government are unwilling to publish the analysis before they announce their decision, we clearly cannot do that.

The Sun has reported that the Government plan to raise the state pension age from 67 to 68 as early as 2035, which will affect everyone who is 54 and under, instead of 10 years later, as set out in current legislation. Is that the right thing to do? Well, we need to see the evidence. The key evidence is about future projections of life expectancy. As we heard from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), emerging evidence shows that the trend of rising life expectancy is not what it was before the pandemic.

One of the expert witnesses at this morning’s meeting of the Select Committee said, “Mortality seems to have peaked, because one reason why there was increasing mortality was that the second world war lifestyle was ironically quite healthy for people, and the numbers are now going down quite a lot.” We were discussing something else this morning, and I do not know what evidence the witness was drawing on there, but I do not know what evidence the Government will draw on either, because it has not been published and it should have been. There should be no delay in publishing it.

Cohort life expectancy statistics are produced every two years. A new set is expected this year. The latest, 2020-based projections show life expectancy at 65 still rising, but at a slower rate than in previous releases. Of course, the 2020 figures did not take any account of changes arising from the pandemic. The change in projection has prompted some commentators to call for the planned rises in the state pension age to be abandoned, or at least to be slowed.

Lane Clark & Peacock took the latest Office for National Statistics life expectancy projections and reran the 2017 calculations of the Government Actuary’s Department. They concluded that any move from 67 to 68 would not be needed until the mid-2060s rather than the mid-2040s, and certainly not by the late 2030s, as suggested by The Sun. They also suggested that the move from 66 to 67, which is currently scheduled to be phased in over two years from 2026, could be put back until the end of the 2040s. They went on to argue that if further ONS statistics show relatively lower life expectancy growth, that could imply further delays to planned increases, and perhaps even abandoning the planned rise to 67.

The former pensions Minister but two—I think— Steve Webb, who is now a partner at Lane Clark & Peacock said:

“The Government’s plans for rapid increases in state pension age have been blown out of the water by this new analysis. Even before the Pandemic hit, the improvements in life expectancy which we had seen over the last century had almost ground to a halt.”

Those are important public policy questions. They should be debated in Parliament and among the public before the Government announce their decision, so that that public and parliamentary debate can inform the Government’s decision. We should not just see the evidence after the Government have announced what they plan to do, because changing the Government’s mind at that point will not happen.

A wide public debate should take place now, but it cannot happen unless the independent review and the Government Actuary’s report are published before the announcement is made. I ask the Minister to resist the temptation to keep the documents hidden for even longer and instead to remember the wise words of David Cameron, and to be open and publish those two key documents.