HC Deb 27 June 1978 vol 952 cc1293-6

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Kenneth Baker (St. Marylebone)

This is the main beneficiary clause in the Bill. I have tabled three amendments which have not been selected. I do not for a moment question the choice of the Chair. The amendments may well have been defective in that they sought to add words at the end of the clause when, perhaps, they should have been added earlier.

This clause will give three months' salary to the dependants of Members who die after the passing of this measure. It will also make some improvement to children's pensions. On Second Reading I argued that this clause, as the main benefit clause, should be back-dated by a year. I said that because I believe that the Government obliged to introduce this Bill a year ago, as the Minister of State almost implied in his opening remarks on Second Reading. I do not say that he agreed with my proposition but the implication was there when he said: The Review Body's report was, of course, presented to Parliament in July 1976, but at that time pay policy virtually ruled out any improvements in occupational pension schemes and we were not able to take any immediate action. I accept that. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say: From 1st August 1977 this was no longer the case, and we were able to consider implementing the Review Body's recommendations." —[Official Report, 21st June 1978; Vol. 952, c. 615.) It is my contention that the Government should have acted promptly and introduced this Bill because it did not go against phase 2 of the Government's incomes policy. The Government did not do so. The Bill took some time to prepare. As a result, I believe that they should have made this clause retrospective to cover the dependants of the eight Members who have died in the past year. Of those eight Members, six have dependants. If my suggestion expressed on Second Reading had been accepted by the Government the widows of the six Members who have died would have benefited from the clause.

It is particularly ironic, tragic and poignant that the widow of one Member who died over the weekend would have benefited if my recommendations had been accepted by the Government. What makes it even more ironic was that the last words that Mr. Joseph Harper spoke in the House were in the middle of my speech. I was saying: We are the only group in society that can determine absolutely what we pay ourselves and what levels of pension we set. He intervened and said: We have made a very bad job of it"— [Official Report. 21st June 1978; Vol. 952, c. 650.] I believe that we have made a very bad job of it.

The intention of my amendments was to give the small benefits in this clause to the dependants of those Members who have died over the past year. This would have included Joe Harper, who attended the Second Reading of the Bill. I very much regret that my amendments have not been selected. It may well be that by the time we reach Report I can find a form of words that will bring my amendments into order, in which case I would ask you, Mr. Godman Irvine, to consider accepting a starred amendment to implement what I have been saying.

Mr. John Smith

I do not believe that anyone—certainly not the Government—lacks sympathy for the proposition put forward by the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker). We are conscious of the poignancy in the fact that Joe Harper was the Whip sitting on the Bench beside Ministers when the Second Reading debate took place. The fact that this Bill was before the House for consideration naturally sprang to our minds when we heard of his unfortunate death. There are, regrettably, a number of other hon. Members who have died within the past year, most of them from the Labour side of the House.

We are in a genuine difficulty about incorporating retrospective elements in pension schemes. I ought to put the other side of the case and explain that to start introducing a retrospective element into pensions legislation of this type would raise a fundamental principle which would possibly have repercussive effects upon many other pension schemes. The hon. Gentleman may disagree with that but it is worth drawing to the attention of the Committee that this has to be taken into consideration.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has raised any other comments about the substance of the clause, of which I am sure he approves. We shall come later to amendments which seek to improve its provisions. The Government have not acted in the way proposed by hon. Members because of the principle of retrospection.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Before the Minister slips off that rather uncomfortable pole upon which he has perched in an attempt to excuse the Government's conduct in respect of this clause I would point out that the pension scheme that we are discussing for Members of Parliament is unique in more ways than one. As one who has in the recent past seen fit to condemn retroactive legislation in another area I do not believe that the Government can simply say that to back-date would breach a serious principle yet at the same time continue so to denude the scheme that it continues to be a very special scheme.

If the Government do not intend to bring forward an amendment which would implement the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker), would it be possible for them to consider, as a one-off measure, some sort of arrangement in respect of those Members who have died within the period that we are here considering? The Government can be criticised for being dilatory in bringing forward this measure. If that is conceded in any way by the Minister the Government have a responsibility to see whether there is not a case for bringing in a measure to take care of the case of those former Members to whom my hon. Friend has referred. Looking to the future they should try to see that such a situation does not recur. There is a duty upon the Government to do this, out of compassion and because they can be said to have a narrow responsibility.

Mr. John Smith

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) has in essence repeated the argument of the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) with the added point that there are certain unique features about the parliamentary scheme. That is true. Unfortunately, there are also similarities between the parliamentary scheme and other public sector pension schemes. I understand that it is the practice of those who are responsible for negotiating public sector schemes to look closely at what is decided for Members of Parliament. In the short time that I have been considering this matter I have realised that it is possible to draw parallels and non-parallels with all sorts of pension schemes.

The short answer is that we share the hon. Member's sense of frustration over the fact that we are unable to help the widows of our former colleagues but feel that if we departed from the principle of non-retrospection we would be getting into very deep waters indeed. With great regret I have to say that I cannot offer to bring forward an amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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