HC Deb 19 May 2004 vol 421 cc1045-6

'The PPF Ombudsman may refer any question of law arising for determination in connection with—

  1. (a) a reviewable matter referred to him by virtue of regulations under section 196, or
  2. (b) a matter referred to him by virtue of regulations under section 197,
to, in England and Wales, the High Court or, in Scotland, the Court of Session.'.—[Mr. Pond.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Pond

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause builds on an Opposition amendment tabled in Committee and accepted in principle at that time. I am extremely disappointed that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) is not with us for this part of our proceedings, as in time the provision may come to be known as the "Tatton amendment", as opposed to "amendments in tatters', the fate of many of the amendments proposed by the hon. Gentleman in Committee. When people at bus stops discuss the role of the pension protection fund ombudsman, the name of the hon. Gentleman will fall from their lips.

Clauses 196 and 197 provide for the pension protection fund ombudsman to consider and make determinations on reviewable matters and complaints of maladministration that have been referred to him following the two-stage PPF internal review process. From time to time, the pension protection fund ombudsman, to whom I shall refer henceforth as the PPFO, may be asked to make a determination on a case involving a complex point of law on which he or she needs advice. The new clause enables the PPFO to refer such questions to the High Court or the Court of Session in Scotland. The PPFO will take the Court's ruling into account when making his or her determination. That approach is in line with the powers in place for the pensions ombudsman under section 150(7) of the Pension Schemes Act 1993, which enable him to seek advice on points of law or to clarify the limits of his jurisdiction in a particular case.

I have acknowledged the role of the Opposition in bringing forward the new clause, but we have extended the scope of their original amendment by enabling the PPFO to ask the Court's advice on points of law arising from an alleged maladministration case as well as a reviewable matter. We believe that is the right approach, given that complaints of maladministration can progress into a reviewable matter question involving a point of law and vice versa.

Mr. Waterson

As the Minister has pointed out, the new clause builds on an amendment that we tabled in Committee. However, I should not like Members to run away with the idea that that was a typical theme of our proceedings. I cannot help but feel that, had Ministers been more open to accepting our amendments, the Bill that leaves this place would be much better.

The whole issue of the PPF ombudsman—or the PPFO, as we must now refer to him—is just one part of the rather complex bureaucracy that the Bill will erect. It is a matter of great sadness, especially to the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), that no amendment pertains to the determinations committee: those faceless men and, no doubt, women who will have a major role to play in enforcing the Bill when it becomes law.

As the Minister pointed out, we have my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) to thank for the new clause. It is fair to say that, when he argued the case for the proposal in Committee, he seemed to be pushing on a relatively open door. It seems clear—the Minister confirmed this in his opening remarks—that there will be not only a pensions ombudsman, as currently, but a PPF ombudsman. It is important to realise that we are producing ombudsmen and women in significant numbers these days.

Just to confuse matters, in another rare moment of openness to argument from the Opposition in Committee, Ministers conceded that they were seriously considering the prospect of that being one and the same person. I do not know how far the discussions with the current ombudsman have progressed, but that suggestion would make a great deal of sense because a lot of the functions are very similar. It seems a little odd to reinvent the wheel and have a completely different ombudsman for the PPF, along with all the associated administration.

As the Minister indicated, the only point behind amendment No. 538, which we moved in Committee, was to try to ensure that a power that is already available to the pensions ombudsman would be available to the PPF ombudsman. In Committee, the Minister kindly said that he would consider that proposal if we withdrew that amendment, which we duly did, and it is now back in almost identical wording. As the Minister said, this is the Tatton amendment, and if my hon. Friend achieves nothing else in politics, which I think most unlikely, he will have this to tell his grandchildren about.

We welcome the new clause. It started off as our amendment, so it would be churlish, even by my standards, to oppose it.

Mr. Pond

I am delighted that the Opposition accept the new clause, which is based on their own original amendment. That comes as a surprise to us all.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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