We have already published the first installment of answers to
the questions you recently posed to Theresa May, the newly appointed
shadow secretary of state for work and pensions. Here is her second set
of answers, covering issues surrounding pensions and her responsibilities as shadow minister for women.
Her final responses are here.
Question from Yogi: Will we have the courage and the will to reform the public sector pensions, and what about the obscene pension schemes provided for MPs?
Theresa May: Public sector workers do extremely important work and are entitled to security in retirement. However, I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore the rising cost of public sector pensions, particularly given the current state of the economy and the public finances, and the fact that many private sector workers have seen their pension savings badly affected by a number of issues including Gordon Brown’s £5bn a year raid on pension funds. The current total size of unfunded public sector pension liabilities is estimated by some independent experts as being as high as £1 trillion and this is a bill that will ultimately have to be met by taxpayers. Conservatives have long been calling for more transparency in public sector pensions so that taxpayers fully understand the true costs and public sector workers can see just how valuable their retirement benefits are. We have so far taken no firm decisions about the future of public sector pension schemes. It would be inappropriate for us to do so without having proper access to assessments of the costs, and so nothing has been ruled in or out. However, any policy change would ensure that accrued rights were protected. We have always said that moving new MPs onto a defined contribution scheme is a crucial first step in any wider reform of public sector pensions.
Question from John Millar: Could you advise what a future Conservative Government would do to fill the £100 billion plus funding gap in the funding of private pensions. As someone nearing pensionable age and not wishing to be a burden on the State it is my biggest worry.
Theresa May: I also am concerned by the current state of private pension funds in the UK. Unfortunately this Labour Government has heaped red tape and regulation upon private pension funds, making it more cumbersome and expensive for employers to provide good quality schemes. During the passage of the latest Pensions Act, we tabled a number of amendments focused on reducing the regulatory burden on pension schemes, and helping to encourage employers to continue providing good quality schemes. We will continue to pursue this line of approach.
Question from David at Home: John Major’s Tory government restricted the award of state widows’ pensions to young widows and the New Labour government killed them off completely. Will the next Conservative Government reintroduce state widows’ pensions for young widows? If not, then why not?
Theresa May: I understand your concern but given the disastrous
economic climate a future Conservative Government would inherit, we
simply cannot make any promises.
Question from Steve Foley: Will a future Conservative Government assist
those on a fixed income by lowering the age for free TV Licences to the
State Pension Age, currently 65?
Theresa May: Pensioners, especially those on a fixed income, will certainly bear the
brunt of this recession. Rising food, fuel and council tax bills take
up a greater proportion of a pensioners income; and this was already
the case before falling interest rates drastically cut their income
from savings. We have already committed to working with local councils
to freeze council tax for two years, which would benefit pensioners;
and we are pressing the Government to make changes in this year’s
budget that would help people who are suffering from the low interest
rates on savings. Specifically we want the Chancellor this year to
abolish tax on income from savings for basic rate taxpayers and to
raise the tax allowance for pensioners by £2,000 to £11,490. These
moves would all help pensioners.
Question from Sally Roberts: In these difficult economic times, many
women are finding it increasingly difficult to pay for childcare. What
can you do to encourage more employers to provide creches or make other
arrangements to enable good women to stay in the workforce?
Theresa May: This is a crucial issue. One in five women say they cannot find
affordable childcare in their area, and because of the Government’s
obsession with state-run, centralised childcare the number of voluntary
and independent nurseries and childminders is declining. These
different forms of childcare are important to meet the different needs
of parents. Another problem is that Gordon Brown’s complicated tax and
benefits system means that many women are not claiming the support that
they are entitled to. So one thing we must do is simplify the tax and
benefits system. I would also like to see a greater take-up of
childcare vouchers. These come out of an employee’s salary and go
straight towards childcare costs. They are exempt from tax and National
Insurance, meaning both the employee and employer benefit. A mother can
save up to £99 a month through this arrangement. We hope to see more
working parents make use of this.
Question from Peter: You’ve said (for example, here)
that you accept the research showing the pay gap is very much about men
and women making different choices of careers and at school, with men
being more single-minded and focused on money whereas women are more
likely to choose sociable hours, work that interests them, and to take
leave to look after children and so on. But if it is true that many
women are consciously deciding that other things in their lives and
careers matter more than a high salary, is it for politicians to
second-guess women’s choices and tell them they should instead be
making the same decisions as men? I can see why the Conservative Party
would want to end discrimination against women in pay, but not why it
would want to discourage women from choosing to look after children, or
following the career they find most interesting, even if their bank
Theresa May: Peter, what I have always tried to promote is choice. I certainly don’t
believe that politicians should be encouraging women either to stay at
home or go out to work but I think we have a duty to provide a level
playing field for women. Parenthood still has much more of an impact on
women’s careers than men’s and I don’t think it needs to, and I don’t
believe all fathers are happy with the imbalance either. If we could
make our workplaces more parent friendly, accommodating fathers’
responsibilities too, then I believe we could all benefit. This isn’t
just about earning less or more, it’s about fairness and choice.
Question from Harry Sharpe: I am currently studying Goverment and
Politics as an A level subject and female MPs have been cause for
debate recently. In particular the way that New Labour has imposed only
women candidates upon certain constituencies to make the party more
representative. In your personal opinion do you believe this to be a
good step or not and if so, could it practically be introduced to the
Theresa May: I don’t support all-women shortlists. In the Conservative Party we’ve
actually made significant progress in selecting high quality women
candidates without the need for all women shortlists. I firmly believe
that attracting people from a wide range of backgrounds who would make
good MPs, should be our prime concern. All MPs should get there on
merit. But as a party we did need to do something to address the
apparent bias in the selection system which meant that we were missing
out on many talented women who could have become MPs. We all need to do
more to attract more women and BME candidates to consider a political
career. I don’t think that can be done effectively by quotas and
restricted shortlists, but by making politics and political parties
more accessible. We’ve had success with our women candidates but there
is still a lot more to do.
Question from David Strauss: As Shadow Minister for Women, do you
think that there should be a Shadow Minister for Men and please give a
reason for your answer.
As you can imagine I get asked this a lot! My brief actually covers
Women and Equality so men come under this as well. However, I think
it’s right to have a specific Minister for Women because of the number
of issues that exclusively or predominantly affect women, such as
domestic violence, rape, the gender pay gap and other workplace issues.
I’m not sure there’s quite the same need for a Minister for Men.