Steve Webb’s speech to Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats
"Steve, you're an above-average pensions minister!"
In a world where praise can be a bit hard to come by, I took that as a compliment.
But he quickly said:
"No, I didn't mean that you're good at your job, I meant you've survived longer than most pension ministers!"
And when I inquired, I found out that I was, indeed, the 11th different pensions minister in the last 14 years.
So it is hardly suprising that pensions policy has been a bit piecemeal and messy over the years.
Every change with the best of intentions, but put it all together and the whole isn't as good as the sum of the parts.
Instead, we have a fiendishly complex system that no-one understands that doesn't deliver enough either for today's pensioners or tomorrow's.
But being appointed a new minister at the start of a new Government is a huge opportunity.
A chance to set out a long-term vision of where we want pensions to be, and to introduce measures in both state and private pensions that move in the same direction.
So let me tell you what we've achieved in the last 16 months.
Our first priority is today's pensioners.
For the last thirty years, the value of the basic state pension has fallen.
Since the link with earnings was broken at the start of the 1980s, the pension has fallen further and further behind the earnings that it is meant to replace.
We put a stop to that.
Labour only said they would restore the link by the end of the next Parliament.
But the Lib Dem manifesto said we would do it straight away, and I was delighted that this commitment was carried over into the Coalition Agreement.
Indeed, we have gone one step further.
We will increase the basic pension by the *higher* of the growth in earnings or consumer prices, so in times like this when wage growth is sluggish, we won't seek to take advantage of this through lower pension increases.
And to go further still, if both earnings and prices are growing slowly, we will increase the pension by at least 2.5% - our so-called 'Triple Lock' guarantee.
There will be no Gordon Brown 75p increases under this Government.
It is important that we communicate to people quite how dramatic the 'triple lock' promise is.
We reckon that this new policy, compared with the policy of the last 30 years, will have put an extra £45 billion into state pension spending by the middle of the next decade.
At a time of austerity, this is a huge financial commitment to pensioners of today and tomorrow and we should make sure everyone knows the crucial role our party played in securing this guarantee.
As well as boosting the value of the state pension, we've had to look at the age at which it is paid.
One in six of us alive today in this country will live to the age of 100, and one in three girls born today will reach that age. So we've had to tackle the difficult issue of state pension ages - something previous government's ducked.
The Government has already made it clear that the date when we reach 67 and 68 will have to be brought forward. But we also recognise that pension age changes need to be fair.
So although we stand by our plans to equalize men and women more quickly and to move to age 66 more quickly, I can assure you that we will do all that we can to ease that transition for the particular group of women most affected by the change.
And Labour left us some other ticking timebombs to diffuse.
Before the election they increased the Cold Weather Payment, payable to the poorest pensioners when it is freezing cold.
What Labour forgot to tell those pensioners was that this 'special offer' was a bit like a 'closing down sale' - available before the election but gone afterwards.
So when we looked at the books we discovered that the Labour spending plans - shockingly - slashed the Cold Weather Payment from £25 per week to just £8.50 per week.
We took the view that the money that is paid when it freezing cold to the most vulnerable pensioners and disabled people should be our priority.
So we reversed the cut, set the rate at £25 per week, and in the cold winter of 2010/11 made more than 17 million cold weather payments. That's £400 million spent making sure the most vulnerable were kept warm last winter.
Conference, do you really think that would have happened if we weren't in this government?
Real help to real people.
But as well as doing our best for today's pensioners, we also want a pensions system fit for today's workers - tomorrow's pensioners.
The foundation of income in retirement has to be the state pension.
But at the moment, we recognise that the state pension is not enough to live on.
If all you have is a basic state pension of just over £100 per week, the DWP will top you up through complicated means-testing to an income of around £135 per week.
Wouldn't it be better if people who had contributed through their lives, either through paid work or caring or in some other way, could be guaranteed a pension clear of the basic means-test, a foundation on which they can build ?
And that is what we want to deliver - something that has much in common with the long-cherished Liberal and Liberal Democrat goal of a Citizen's Pension - being delivered by Liberal Democrats in Government.
Earlier this year I published a Green Paper setting out options for reform of the state pension.
Overwhelmingly, the preferred option was the simple, single decent state pension - something Liberal Democrats have argued for over decades, now at the forefront of government thinking.
It wouldn't be a king's ransom.
But it would cover the basics.
It would treat men and women equally for the first time, and would value unpaid caring work just as much as a high-flying city job.
That would be a truly radical reform, and it is one that Liberal Democrats could be proud of.
Now so far I've mainly talked about the 'P' of DWP.
Which is perhaps not suprising given my day job as Minister of State for Pensions.
But I also involve myself in the decisions taken by the ministerial team across the whole of DWP - that's what you do when you're "the only Lib Dem in the village"!.
And there is work going on about which Liberal Democrats can feel proud.
The first is the introduction of the 'Universal Credit'.
For many years Liberal Democrats have talked about integrating the tax and benefits system.
But to be honest, integrating the benefits system with itself would be a start.
And that is what the Universal Credit does.
It brings together benefits such as Income Support, Child Tax Credits, Working Tax Credits, income-related Jobseekers Allowance and income-related Employment Support Allowance into a single benefit.
Designed to make sure that work pays.
Designed to respond to your changing circumstances month-by-month, not waiting for end year reconciliations or the tax credits people to write to you years after the event to tell you you have been overpaid.
Streamlining benefits and making part-time work viable will help many of the most vulnerable people in our society and the new system will take hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty.
At a time when public money was tight, the Government was right to invest in the Universal Credit, and Liberal Democrat backing for Iain Duncan Smith's plans was crucial in bringing this scheme to fruition.
The second innovation that we should welcome is the Work Programme.
For years we have had endless back to work programmes where people on benefits were sent on 'schemes' so that the provider could tick a box and get paid.
That is all going.
Instead, the welfare-to-work providers - a mix of private companies, charities and public bodies - will find that most of their payment depends on getting someone into a sustained job.
One-size-fits-all schemes are out.
Meeting the needs of the individual in front of you is in.
And the providers will have unprecedented freedom to tailor the help they give.
They won't need DWP approval.
If the person in front of you needs a fork lift truck qualification, you can help pay for it.
If they need help with basic numeracy, you can provide it.
Whatever will help the individual to move from long-term receipt of benefit to sustained work.
This will truly transform the lives of thousands who have been let down in the past by inflexible schemes designed in Whitehall.
Real help, for real people.
Much of what you hear about the DWP is about cuts - and much of it exaggerated.
If you listened to Labour you'd think that our policy programme was slaughter of the first born - and that was just in year one!
For example, take housing benefit.
Cash spending on housing benefit at the start of this Parliament was around £22bn.
And at the end of this Parliament it will be around £22bn.
Yes, reigning in the remorseless growth in spending at a time when the public finances are under pressure.
But still preserving a comprehensive system of support.
Likewise on disability benefits.
Disability Living Allowance cost £12.3bn in current prices at the start of this Parliament.
At the start of the next Parliament the new 'Personal Independence Payment' will cost exactly the same in real terms - £12.3 bn.
Yes, we have had to take tough choices about restraining the growth of benefit spending.
But always, seeking to do so fairly by protecting the most vulnerable.
I wouldn't put my name to anything else. And I know you wouldn't either.
Now, let me take you to next Summer - London, 2012.
Years of preparation.
And finally, the moment arrives and the starting gun is fired.
Yes, at long last, the first people will be automatically enrolled into workplace pensions.
Now I know that some people will have other things on their minds next summer, but for me the lasting legacy of 2012 and beyond will be literally millions of people getting pensions for the first time.
Between 2012 and 2016 we will automatically enrol over 10 million people into workplace pensions, many of whom are currently building up no pension beyond the state pension.
Their employers will put money in, they will put money in and the government will put money in.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help many women workers, many part-timers, many young people and many low-paid workers into pension saving.
They will still be free to opt out, but if they want more than the basic minimum in retirement and to benefit from a contribution from their employer, this will be their chance.
Real help for real people.
We also need to make sure that people are getting good value for money in their pensions, an industry which has not always given itself the best reputation.
So on a whole range of issues I am working with colleagues within DWP and across government to protect the individual consumer and make sure that they get the best possible value for money.
My in-tray currently includes:
- charges - making sure that as much as possible of the money you invest turns into a pension instead of being eaten up in charges;
- small pension pots - many people have lots of different pensions with lots of different employers or different pension companies; well, rather than people have lots of small 'stranded pots' that they can't do too much with, I want to help people put those pension pots together to give - to use a technical term - 'big fat pots'; we will be producing a document later in the year that will set out some of the options;
- good value when you draw your pension - many people build up a pot of money but don't get enough pension out of it; for all sorts of reasons they simply go to their own pension company for a pension, possibly missing out on a much bigger pension by shopping around; I am working with the Treasury and the insurance industry to see if we can do better than this;
and fourth, transfers - at the moment, growing numbers of workers who have company pension rights are getting letters offering them a deal to give up their generous pension rights in return for a much riskier sort of pension plus a cash incentive; Some would call it a "bung". Whilst firms have every right to talk to their workers and ex-workers about getting their pension rights in a different way, we need to make sure that people are making well-informed decisions and not losing out on valuable pension rights without realising it.
On all of these issues my agenda is about making sure that people get the best possible value for money out of their hard-earned pension savings - real help, for real people.
So conference, I urge you to hold your heads up high.
With a huge budget deficit to fill, it would have been easy to slash and burn the social security budget.
But that is not the agenda at the DWP. That is not our agenda.
Almost every part of the system is being reformed.
To make life easier for the individuals who have to interact with the system.
To provide real support for people who are looking for work.
And in my area of pensions, to give dignity and security not only to today's pensioners but to generations to come.
It is a privilege to be in government, but I never forget whose side I am on.
On your side, working to deliver an affordable social security system which supports those most in needed, gives a leg up into work for those who can work, and builds a solid foundation for a secure retirement.
It is a big and bold agenda, and one that Liberal Democrats can be proud of.