Amendments made: No. 173, in page 278, line 44, at end insert—
No. 179, in page 278, line 54, at end insert—
In section 69—(a) in subsection (3), paragraph (a),(b) in subsection (4)(a), the words "(a) or", and(c) in subsection (5)(a), the words "either of".
No. 180, in page 279, line 8, at end insert—
In section 76—(a) in subsection (3), paragraph (c) (but not the word "and" immediately following it), and(b) subsection (5).
In section 77, subsections (2) and (3).
No. 174, in page 279, line 13, at end insert—
'In section 89(2), the word "insolvency".'—[Malcolm Wicks.]
§ Order for Third Reading read.
§ 3.1 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill—and all it brings about—is a landmark in pensions reform. I start by thanking all those who have got us this far: officials who have worked long and hard and still have the other place to look forward to, the Employer Task Force on Pensions, everyone who took part in our extensive consultation, all members of the Standing Committee and all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate on Report over the past two and a half days. I express particular thanks to my 1150 hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions, and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), for doing a first-rate job in steering the Bill through Committee and Report.
As I said, the Pensions Bill is a landmark Bill. With the amendments and new clauses added in Committee and on Report, it is an even better and more comprehensive Bill than it was on Second Reading. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) yesterday described it asamong the most progressive pieces of legislation to pass through this House"—[Official Report, 19 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1015.]It is a vital step forward for security and confidence in pensions. It will transform pensions security by setting up the pension protection fund—a major social reform—to give invaluable reassurance to both members and scheme providers. It will benefit at least 13 million members by giving them the peace of mind they need when they pay into their company scheme, knowing that a fund is in place to pick up the pieces if and when companies go bust.
§ Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con)
Can the Secretary of State estimate how long the £400 million fund will last?
§ Mr. Smith
As was extensively debated yesterday, we have set the figure of £400 million on the basis that through the scheme, we will be able to provide significant help to those who have lost out. It is £400 million over 20 years. It is our judgment of the amount that is necessary to provide that help. I shall have more to say about that later in my speech.
§ Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)
Can the Secretary of State clarify that? How much does he expect that to be worth to each individual pensioner on a weekly or monthly basis? What are the minimum and the maximum that he is using in his calculations?
§ Mr. Smith
Obviously, that will depend on a number of factors. It will depend on any additional industry contribution that is made, on the number of applications to the scheme, on the balance of different sorts of members in the scheme and on the form that the scheme takes—for example, rolling forward assets, and the extent of those assets. It is not possible at this stage to make the calculation that the hon. Gentleman requests. It will depend on those factors as the scheme is put together, as we set out yesterday, in consultation with expert groups and all stakeholders.
§ David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/ Co-op)
Further to the previous question, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the valuable and much welcomed assistance that will be given will be skewed towards older members of former pension funds, who have less time to prepare for their retirement and to compensate for the losses they have incurred?
§ Mr. Smith
I recognise the force of my hon. Friend's point, but I will not be drawn into sketching out outlines of the details of the scheme before the consultations with stakeholders and expert groups. These are matters to be 1151 determined. We are all mindful of the particular plight of those who paid into schemes for a long time, who are older and nearing retirement, and who have lost so much.
§ Gregory Barker
I am grateful for the Secretary of State's patience. If he is saying that he has done no calculations at all and has no idea how much the help will mean for individual pensioners, how can he assert that the figure is the right amount? Has it just been plucked out of the air? There must be some arithmetical basis for alighting on that specific figure; otherwise, it is pulled out of a hat.
§ Mr. Smith
I have already explained the basis on which we made our judgment. As we set out yesterday, before the end of June we will present a report to the House which will provide further details on the basis of the work that we have done.
Let me explain candidly to the hon. Gentleman and to the House why it would be sheer folly and would risk being misleading for me to give an estimate based on the information that I currently have. If I did that, it would be taken as a percentage guarantee. However I might seek to qualify and condition it, that is how it would be taken by many people. I have been concerned throughout to be absolutely straight with people. I would not want some idea of a level of guarantee to take root before and until we knew details of the sort I have enumerated, which must be the ultimate means of determining the level of payouts.
§ Mr. Waterson
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) was trying to make, I think, is that the Secretary of State has already decided what the end-point is: £400 million. He is rather like a restaurateur who says, "Here is the menu with a range of possible options, but you're not allowed to spend more than X pounds in the course of the evening." That is the reality.
§ Mr. Smith
The reality is that £400 million is a very substantial contribution indeed. The reason the Government are able to maintain economic stability, growth and fiscal prudence is that there are not blank cheques flying around out there. We are making £400 million available. As I said, that sum is based on our judgment not only of what is affordable, but of what will provide significant help to those who have lost out—
§ Mr. Smith
I intended to deal with these matters later in my speech. If I may make a little more progress, I shall be happy to take further interventions later.
It is important that we recognise the step forward that the Bill represents in placing a proactive and tough pensions regulator in place, helping to ensure that tragedies of the sort that we have witnessed do not happen in future. The pensions regulator will have the powers needed to step in and tackle fraud and 1152 maladministration. As the House knows, the Bill represents a step forward in many other respects. It extends TUPE so that workers no longer lose all their pension rights just because their firm is taken over. It will ensure consultation before schemes are changed, which is long overdue.
Provisions in the Bill will put an end to the practice of requiring scheme members to purchase an annuity with small pension pots. That is called trivial commutation, but it is not a trivial matter for those affected. Measures in the Bill will more than double the limit, so that people can take all their pension as a lump sum up to £15,000. That will help thousands of people each year.
The Bill will also provide security for a more mobile work force by enabling people in short-stay jobs for the first time to take the full pension that they have built up with them to another scheme. Both of those measures will particularly affect women, and I am sure that the House welcomes our commitment, which was suggested by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), whom I am pleased to see in her place, to publish a report on women and pensions next year.
Alongside greater protection, it is essential that we take action to make it easier for employers to run schemes. We have taken a hard-headed look at whether pensions legislation is well targeted, proportionate and effective. The Bill will remove the barriers of the old section 67 provisions and free firms to recast benefits to suit them best.
On indexation, it was clear to me that regulation had become disproportionate. We were effectively forcing everybody providing a pension to buy a high level of inflation insurance, which was becoming so expensive that some providers IA ere choosing to pull out of pension provision altogether. We have not ducked tough choices to keep pension provision affordable, and I have no doubt that the person in the street would sooner have a bit less inflation protection and a lot more confidence that they will get their pension in retirement.
The Bill will also drive forward a range of simplification measures to streamline the requirements on member-nominated trustees, dispute resolution procedures and reporting arrangements, particularly in relation to late payments, and remove the requirement for schemes to provide additional voluntary contributions. We are also replacing the one-size-fits-all approach of the minimum funding requirement with funding arrangements that will allow schemes to adopt funding strategies suited to their particular circumstances.
We are determined to put people in control of planning for their retirement. The Bill makes possible huge steps forward in retirement planning, with better information on pension options and workplace advice, and it provides for the development of the retirement planner. The roll-out of both combined pension forecasts and individual state forecasts, of which there will be about 15 million by 2006, will enable people to make better informed choices for their retirement. The Bill will also open up new choices for retirement, by giving a worthwhile return to those who defer taking their state pension. For the first time, lump sums will no longer be the preserve of those with good occupational pensions. The Pensions Bill is substantial. It will bolster security for scheme members while making things 1153 easier, simpler and more flexible for pension providers, and it goes together with other important steps that the Government are taking.
By replacing the current eight taxation regimes with one, we are taking a radical simplification step to support saving. By enabling people to draw down their pension while carrying on in employment, we are eroding the cliff edge between work and retirement. By outlawing age discrimination and opening up training opportunities for older people—the Bill also contains improved pension deferral provisions—we are making it easier for those who choose to do so to carry on working, while keeping the state pensionable age at 65 so that no one is forced to do so. By spending an extra £10 billion each year on pensioners we are tackling pensioner poverty and rewarding those with modest savings.
Taken with all those measures, the Bill is another huge step forward. It will renew the pensions partnership in this country and will deliver real progress on simplicity, security and choice in pensions. What is more, this Bill will bring significant help and boost confidence in pensions, through the pre-PPF scheme we debated yesterday.
We have listened to all those workers, trade unionists and hon. Members who have been to see me and my ministerial colleagues to argue the compelling case for those who have lost pensions through no fault of their own when their firm went bust—such people often lose their job at the same time. I have said throughout that we were examining closely whether something could be done to alleviate their plight. Nobody could fail to be deeply moved by the personal histories of those who were initially compelled as a condition of employment to join their company scheme and were given a pension promise, only to lose it and their job at the same time when their company went bust.
I pay tribute to the campaigners, their trade unions and all those hon. Members who have put their cases in an energetic and constructive way. 'They have truly done justice to their cause.
§ Mr. Webb
Among those campaigners, whom the right hon. Gentleman rightly praises, are many workers who have lost their company pension rights but whose employers are solvent. When they heard Friday's announcement, they hoped that they were to obtain justice. Yesterday, the Minister for Pensions said that if the employer is solvent it is the employer's problem, but that is not the case in law. Those people have lost out and have no redress. How many of the 60,000 people—the Secretary of State said in the House that 60,000 is about the right number—were employed by solvent employers and will get nothing from the scheme?
§ Mr. Smith
We have also acted on cases in which employers are solvent. On 11 June, I stated that full buyout would be required after that date, which not only improved protection for the future but addressed the Maersk workers' cases. The Maersk workers were not covered because their cases predated the statement, but the company came into line with the spirit of the Government's intention, and other companies would be right to do the same.
1154 When we set up the scheme, most of the arguments for it concerned companies that had gone bust, which the scheme is intended to cover.
§ Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
Yesterday, the Minister for Pensions gave me heart when he emphasised that the principle of fairness will underlie how the details are drawn up:we are not about using technicalities or legalese to define people out of a proper assistance programme."—[Official Report, 19 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1034.]I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to bear in mind that a number of the pension funds and firms involved have been passed like a parcel from owner to owner, and the precise point at which they are solvent or insolvent is not an exact science. My constituents at Kalamazoo, as well as Cheney, Warwick and Debenholt pensioners, will be looking for that kind of fairness and flexibility.
§ Mr. Smith
I listened to my hon. Friend carefully and pay tribute to him—I am sure that his constituents also do so—for his energetic representation of the Kalamazoo workers in his constituency, whose case he has put vigorously to Ministers. I am happy to repeat the criteria set out by my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions. The House will have noted carefully that the terms of the amendment were open, with questions of eligibility and periods of coverage yet to be prescribed. Throughout this process, however, I have been careful not to raise false hope, and I will not start now. We will examine the matter carefully, and all stakeholders, including workers and hon. Members, will have an opportunity to feed their views into the process by which we collectively determine how the scheme will operate. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions said yesterday, we will pay clear regard to principles of fairness.
§ Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab)
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend has listened to all kinds of organisations on the pensions problem. I welcome the Bill, which I know has its limits. Will he tell us more about the consultation and the criteria that will be used? Does he hope to develop the criteria during the consultation?
§ Mr. Tynan
I have listened intently to the Minister for Pensions. Many people who have lost their pensions will read with interest yesterday's contributions. It would be a tragedy if individuals were left out of gaining payment in lieu of their lost pensions, which could become a focal point for disquiet. I hope that my right hon. Friend accepts that we must carefully consider all 60,000 people who have lost their pensions.
§ Mr. Smith
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and pay tribute to his service on the Committee. He has made a great contribution. Yes, of course we will look very carefully at that issue in the spirit in which 1155 he raises it. I have to say, however, that when the case was being made to me and to the Government that a scheme was required and action was imperative, hon. Members accepted that one of the difficulties was that whatever that action might be, there will always be the problem of where to draw the boundary. Wherever it is drawn, there is a risk that someone, possibly with a case deserving of sympathy, will fall on the wrong side of it. I have gone through this process with my eyes open, as, I hope, have other hon. Members. We look at every case carefully, but we cannot give an unlimited undertaking, whatever the circumstances, to anybody who has been hard done by in terms of the way that their pension has turned out.
As I have said all along, I have been very conscious of the need to look workers in the eye and the need for them to know that I have been straight with them all the way through. We have been straight, and we will continue to be so. Although there is no legal liability and no precedent set, I have been conscious all along that if the Government could do something to help these people, it would be the right thing to do. We have announced £400 million over 20 years to help to address the serious losses that some now face, with encouragement to industry to offer further support. Furthermore, we have set out practical steps, including involving our partners and industry experts in developing the scheme, consulting on draft regulations by the end of November and having the scheme in place by next spring, with payments to follow as soon as practicable thereafter.
§ David Taylor
My right hon. Friend has told the House on several occasions that later this summer he will provide figures and analyses that show how the scheme might work. Will those figures include the net savings that are anticipated in relation to the means-tested benefits that will not be payable because of the welcome support that the Government are giving?
§ Mr. Smith
I will carefully examine whether that can be included in the report. I am sure that it will be a consideration that is brought to bear by people who take the figures to make estimates.
I want to be absolutely straight about this. The money will not cover everyone who feels aggrieved, nor will it give to those whom it does help everything that they might want, but it will provide significant help to those who have lost out so badly.
I am proud that a Labour Government are taking action that many said was not possible. I honestly do not think that help on this scale would have been forthcoming under any other Government. The crucial thing is that thousands of people who thought that they had lost their pensions will now receive help. The measures in the Bill, such as the pension protection fund, will give extra protection for the future to more than 13 million members of final salary schemes.
The Bill is a big step forward for security and choice and for confidence in pensions. I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Waterson
This has been a long and hard road for those of us who served on the Standing Committee, which had some 22 sittings—[Interruption.] I see that the tension is getting to the Secretary of State, as well. I thank all hon. Members concerned, who, on the whole, kept their senses of humour—those who had them in the first place, that is. I exclude the Minister from that, of course, although I believe that he is still going to the evening classes.
I thank the officials who desperately tried to assist Ministers in maintaining the pretence that there was some sort of order and organising genius behind the Bill, which at times seemed to acquire a life of its own. I thank all those who advised us—the voices from outside who were able to send us draft amendments, briefings and comments—and all those who would have liked to do so if so much had not happened in a rush at the end of the proceedings.
Without in any sense denigrating the efforts of other members of the Committee, I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) for their sterling efforts. To use a contemporary cinematic expression, they both worked liked Trojans.
§ Mr. Waterson
We did get defeated, although I am afraid that there was no wooden horse, just a lot of wooden jokes.
This is a very large Bill, but it does not give much away. Having spent 22 sittings trying to peer behind the verbiage, enormous amounts of detail still remain for regulations, codes of practice and so on. At times, we seemed almost to have reversed roles, with the Government frantically tabling amendments and new clauses to their own Bill, which the Minister, with his gift for understatement, once memorably described as "work in progress".
I turn first to the part of the Bill that deals with the state retirement pension. Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending the pensioners' parliament in Blackpool, and a very special event it was. The Minister, having bottled out of turning up, had the temerity to claim that my duties should have kept me in the House. However, as I said to the pensioners' parliament, I am the shadow Pensions Minister, I want to be the Pensions Minister, and if I were the Pensions Minister I would be in Blackpool for that occasion, not in the House of Commons. The Department for Work and Pensions has a large ministerial team, and the Minister could well have made the effort. Once we had pointed out the clash of dates, it was always open to the Government to schedule Report for a different day, but they did not take that opportunity. That shows where their priorities lie.
I should tell the Minister, before I share with him some other thoughts from the pensioners' parliament, that they were deeply unimpressed with the Age-Related Payments Bill, which we have the pleasure of debating in Committee next week—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State is taking on the role played in Committee by the Minister's PPS, the hon. Member for Greenock and 1157 Inverclyde (David Cairns), which was to shout abuse from a sedentary position—or perhaps he was saying his rosary; I could not quite make it out.
It will not have escaped people's attention, particularly those in the pensioners' parliament, that the Government have been careful to engineer the situation so that we did not have the opportunity to debate restoring the earnings link for the state retirement pension. That suited the Government down to the ground, because it is definitely not part of their pensions policy. To be fair, it suited the Liberal Democrats, too, because their policy is under review, whatever that means. That is a great shame. We spent a lot of time discussing some highly technical amendments, perhaps to a greater extent than their merits deserved. There will be an opportunity to vote on restoring the earnings link at the next general election.
Let me explain in my consideration of the provisions that deal with the state pension why restoring the earnings link is so important.
§ Mr. Andrew Smith
If restoring the link is so important, will the hon. Gentleman give a commitment to extending it beyond four years?
§ Mr. Waterson
It is a bit of a cheek when Ministers make such interventions. I invariably ask them in return when the Government will tell us whether the pension credit will be increased in the next Parliament, should they, by happenstance, be re-elected. When will they give a commitment to increase it in line with either earnings or prices? The answer is currently that they will not, but we might hear more about that in July.
I want to consider means-testing and the importance of the relationship between occupational pensions, which are largely but not entirely the concern of the Pensions Bill, and the state retirement pension. The latter should be a decent and sufficient platform on which people can build provision for their retirement. Under the Government, savings have fallen by roughly half. Is it any wonder given that people, especially young people, read bad news stories almost every day about pensions? In the long-term, that could prove to be the worst part of the pensions crisis that we face.
At the moment, 59 per cent. of pensioners are subject to means-testing. On the Government's projections, that figure will increase to 82 per cent. by the middle of the century. That is an extraordinary figure, which means that we are going entirely in the wrong direction. I shall not embarrass the Minister again by trotting out his views on means-testing when he did not bear the burdens of office.
§ Mr. Waterson
I shall if the Minister presses me, although we can agree that matters should not progress in the way that I have described in the 21st century. Despite spending some £47 million of taxpayers' money on advertising and publicity for the pension credit, the take-up remains little more than 50 per cent. The Government's working assumption is that 1.4 million of the poorest pensioners will never get around to claiming it.
§ Mr. Waterson
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's role in Committee. I give him an absolute assurance on the point that he makes. I shall shortly put it in context. He referred to my being in government. Two things have to happen: the Conservative party has to win an election and the new Prime Minister has to recognise my talents. I do not want to be too hypothetical.
§ Richard Burden
I fully recognise the hon. Gentleman's talents, but the first criterion of the Conservative party convincing the electorate might be more difficult to achieve. Let me revert to the question that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked. The hon. Gentleman bases his arguments about means-testing on what will happen in several years' time. Given that the earnings link is not a figure but a formula, why cannot he project beyond four years?
§ Mr. Waterson
We shall enter the next election campaign on promises that are based on a Parliament. We would hope and intend to continue with the same formula. An amendment that we tabled referred to whichever was higher: earnings or prices, because we do not know what the future holds.
To revert to the subject of means-testing, there has been a collapse in savings.
§ Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)
The biggest means test is the income tax system. Do Conservative Front Benchers now suggest that that should not be means-tested? Or is means-testing considered good when the Government are taking money from somebody but bad when they are giving people money?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)
Order. I remind hon. Members that we are debating the Bill's contents, that many Members are trying to catch my eye and that the debate is time limited. Although interventions are understandable, they take time out of the debate. Those who wish to catch my eye might think twice before they intervene.
§ Mr. Waterson
On the basis of your ruling, M r. Deputy Speaker, I shall not rise to the previous intervention. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] All right then, I shall—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman did not, because it is definitely outside the terms of the Bill.
§ Mr. Waterson
Then I will not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am just too easily provoked.
I should like to pull together the points that I was making on means-testing. It is too complex, too intrusive and too demeaning. The high marginal rates of withdrawal are difficult to defend, and our proposal is to reverse the level of means-testing and restore dignity to pensioners. No pensioner will lose under our proposals, to answer the question of the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), and most will gain. For 1159 the record, we have no plans to remove the Christmas bonus or the winter fuel payment, and we are not—I repeat, not—scrapping the pension credit. We shall merely let it wither on the vine as the level of the state pension rises. All these proposals have been very carefully costed.
§ Gregory Barker
Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue of the Government's favourite policy of more and more means-testing, will he tell me whether he shares my surprise that the Bill contains nothing that would make their means-testing policies more effective? The most damning thing that can be said about the Government's means-testing feast is that it is singularly ineffective, because so many people slip out of the system and do not take up the means-tested benefits to which they are entitled. That is why it is wrong, and that is why it must go.
§ Mr. Waterson
My hon. Friend makes my point better than I did.
One thing that we know about the state retirement pension is that the take-up rate is more or less 100 per cent. Our provisions would therefore be a way of ensuring that every pensioner had a decent state retirement pension and that the poorest pensioners would be helped. It is paradoxical that it is often the very poorest people who do not get around to claiming means-tested benefits such as council tax benefit, for example, despite the sterling efforts of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond).
There is a significant read-across between that argument and the question of occupational pensions. As the system of means-tested benefits for pensioners becomes ever more complex and confusing, how are pensioners or would-be pensioners to divine whether they are doing the right thing in saving money for their retirement? More than once we have put to Ministers a figure produced for us by independent actuaries showing the amount that an average couple would have to set aside in their lifetime—over and above the equity in their house—to be sure of not being subject to means-testing when they retired. That figure is £180,000. It has been comprehensively rubbished by the Secretary of State and other Ministers, but it is important for the Government to come up with their own figure. It is important not just from the point of view of future pensioners, who have to make a judgment as to whether they are wasting their time saving money for their retirement—that could well be an explanation for the collapse of the savings culture since this Government came to power—but from the point of view of the industry. How is the industry to be aware of whether it is mis-selling products to people if no one knows whether those people will get a net benefit from them?
Nowhere has this argument been better put than in the briefing produced for this debate by Age Concern, which states:To tackle pensioner poverty in the long-term, pension policy must be built around a higher and more inclusive basic state pension. This Government must move away from means-testing: it is costly, complex and too many pensioners miss out on their 1160 entitlement. Instead of putting money into pensioners' pockets once they are in poverty, the Government must address the causes of that poverty."
§ Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)
Can we hear the Conservatives' proposals for making the basic state pension more inclusive, in relation to women in particular?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I do not think that that is part of the content of the Bill before the House.
§ Mr. Waterson
I think that the answer is no. In passing, however, may I pay tribute to the sterling efforts of the hon. and learned Lady in raising those issues in Committee? If she has not squeezed an annual report on women's pensions out of the Minister, she can at least expect one report some time next year.
The Bill is riven by the law of unintended consequences. A problem that we faced in Committee was that an awful lot of very important issues came up only at the last minute. One example, to which the Secretary of State has quite reasonably referred, was the section 67 issue. When I first started chatting to people in the industry, when the Bill was merely a twinkle in some parliamentary draftsman's eye, they all said that the most important issue was simplification, because it is clearly easier to shut down a scheme than it is to make a minor amendment to it. Typically, the Government produced amendments or new clauses right at the end of the Committee stage—proposals that ran to pages and pages—in an attempt to simplify that part of the previous legislation.
Another example, which has been highlighted in the business press this week, is to be found in the anti-avoidance measures. Early on, people were saying that in many ways the key to this Bill will be the anti-avoidance provisions, which are sometimes called the moral hazard provisions, although anti-avoidance is more appropriate in this regard. Those are measures to ensure that badly disposed people and companies will not find a way round the provisions. We debated that quite a lot in the latter part of the Committee stage, and earlier on Report. I have no difficulty at all with anti-avoidance provisions: when the House passes a law on whatever subject, it is absolutely right that we try to limit the options for people to get round it. By definition, however, such provisions should be properly consulted on, at length, with some of the very people who might be paid large fees to find a way round the legislation in the first place.
Among the issues that have been raised by Messrs Cameron McKenna, who are highly respected lawyers in this field, are the financial support directions, which we have had precious little opportunity to consider, let alone debate. The regulator may decide that an employer is either a service company or insufficiently resourced, and may be required to make payments to the pension scheme. There are wide-ranging powers to draw in other related people and companies. As Mr. Nigel Moore of Cameron McKenna says:These reforms are potentially very wide ranging and implications go beyond simple anti-avoidance activity … For trustees, the financial support provisions are very significant and are likely to lead to trustees seeking support from group companies who are not currently employers under the pension scheme, failing which they could apply to the regulator to issue a financial support direction.1161 I believe that the Secretary of State has received a letter from the venture capital industry expressing real concerns about whether in future there will be takeovers and so on. I saw his rather blustering response reported inThe Times—I am sure that it did not do it justice. The reality, however, is that there may be situations—on the basis of the law of unintended consequences—in which another company that has the potential to take over a struggling company and keep it going, thereby keeping the pension scheme going, will be deterred from doing so by the provisions. That is one of the clear messages in the British Venture Capital Association's comments to the Secretary of State. There are other examples.
§ Mr. Fallon
What my hon. Friend says applies even more widely. Suppose a company is in difficulty and another wishes to come to its aid, take it over and put funding into it, and neither has a pension fund that is in difficulty. In circumstances where there is a third associated subsidiary company in the group, the directors and investors of the second company will be personally liable if that third company runs into difficulties with its pension fund.
§ Mr. Waterson
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Those are the kind of issues that one would have hoped would be hammered out at an early stage, before the Bill was even published. One wonders what the Government have been doing in the past couple of years, as the pensions crisis has mounted.
Let me turn to the question of the assistance package—that seems to be the term that has stuck on both sides of the House—for the 60,000 people who have already lost pension rights. I had the impression towards the end of the Secretary of State's speech that he was throttling back a little on the rhetoric, as he finally alighted on the phrase, "significant help". What that significant help will turn out to be is the real issue that we must address. Understandably, this entire Bill—the good parts and the bad—has from the beginning been overshadowed by the plight of those 60,000 people. We heard some details of that package yesterday, but there is much that remains to be seen. In fairness, the Secretary of State made that clear. One or two hon. Members described the scheme yesterday as a breakthrough, and I hope that it is. There was even a reference to "teutonic plates", which I think was intended to be a reference to tectonic plates. That is of course the sort of term that the Deputy Prime Minister uses as the small change of conversation.
I pay tribute to Members who have represented their constituents so valiantly. It is invidious to single anyone out, but I mention in particular the hon. Members for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who has a distinguished track record. The trade unions, especially the steel union, have played a significant role. I also pay tribute to the Pensions Action Group—I believe that Mr. Andrew Parr is its doughty webmaster—and various groups such as Kalamazoo whose representatives have been to see many of us over a long period. Then there is the formidable Dr. Ros Altmann, whom we have all come to know as part of the process. Last but by no means least, there is my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), 1162 who seems to have been—if I may mix my metaphors—the final catalyst that made the tectonic plates start shifting.
We know from a no less authoritative source thanThe Times that after Prime Minister's questions a week ago, the Prime Minister stormed out and demanded to know why there had been so little progress on this issue. It seems fairly clear that at one point the DWP was taken out of the loop and the Prime Minister intervened directly with the Chancellor.
Let us be in no doubt that this package is nothing to do with principle; it is all about politics. It is another U-turn, negotiated at the very last minute by a Government who were staring defeat in the House of Commons in the face. A cross-party campaign had been welded together that would have defeated the Government had they not done something. They have done something, but is it enough?
The Secretary of State made a virtue of the fact that many of the details were simply not yet there, and said that new clause 34, which we debated yesterday, was very wide and general. The one detail that is absolutely clear and set in stone is the £400 million figure. The Government seem to have begun with the answer, and are now going to work out how to get there. It is no earthly good their saying that they are gathering data, as the Minister said yesterday. Why did they not start the process ages ago?
I remember that some months ago, at Question Time, Ministers refused a request from the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for an independent inquiry into the size of the problem. Eventually—and only after pressure from Conservative Members—the Secretary of State adopted the figure of 60,000. The work could and should have been done only by the Government. Why was it left to Dr. Altmann to produce her figures? They may be right and they may be wrong; I am not in a position to judge. Conservative Members simply do not have resources of that kind. But why have the Government so recently signed up to the notion that they should be in the business of finding out the scale of the problem?[Interruption.]
§ Gregory Barker
My hon. Friend has considerably more experience in this place than I have. Can he think of another instance in which a Government of either colour have come up with such a neat, round-figure solution as the £400 million in answer to such an extraordinarily complex and difficult question, without even knowing at the outset what the question is?
§ Mr. Waterson
My hon. Friend makes the central point. How was it possible to produce a figure without knowing the extent of the problem? The 60,000 figure has been bandied around for some time. It will presumably go up rather than down as other people get into pensions difficulties. But no matter what actuarial tables are used, dividing £400 million by 60,000 over 20 years does not produce a very satisfactory set of figures.
1163 That is why we seem to be talking about assistance, not compensation. Even the hon. Member for Cardiff, West yesterday adopted the word "assistance", and the Minister for Pensions, too, has used it. We are talking not about full compensation, or perhaps anything like it, but about something to help the people affected. It will be more than tea and sympathy but less than compensation.
Why are solvent wind-ups not included? That point was made by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). I appreciate the Government's formal position, and as a lawyer, I understand why they have to have that kind of ex gratia arrangement. I shall come back to that in a moment. However, once we concede the moral case and decide to go beyond the legalities, how is the moral case of the pensioners who have lost out because of insolvent wind-ups any different in reality from that of those who have lost just as much, or possibly more, in solvent wind-ups? How can we make that distinction?
I mentioned the case in the European Court. It is rather odd, with the Government as the guardian of the taxpayers' interests, that as part of the deal that has been put together at short notice—not in the car park of the Loch Fyne oyster bar, but no doubt somewhere similar—no one thought to make it a term of everyone's signing up to the deal that that court case would be withdrawn. My understanding is that the unions think that they have a good case, and that they expect to win. Might the Government not therefore end up in a situation in which, having put together this package with the best of intentions—although we still have to hear much of the detail—they then find that there is a judgment against them for far more money in the European Court?
Another puzzling loose end to the package is the airy-fairy talk about contributions from industry and the pensions industry—about rattling the begging bowl to them to top up the amount. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, who obviously spends more time in the real world than some of the Ministers, said, why should industry do that? What possible argument is there for it to pay out money, particularly when it is gearing up to face the PPF and the levy?
The great unsolved mystery is the question of unclaimed assets. For month after month, Ministers' line and the Treasury line—of course, as I have said before, the DWP is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Treasury—has been that the fact that those assets are not claimed does not necessarily mean that they do not belong to someone. Suddenly, in the small print of the Red Book, those unclaimed assets, which were apparently previously unavailable for this purpose, are available to hand out to charities. That is very curious, and our line, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said yesterday, is that if there is a funding gap beyond the £400 million, that will be the moment to call on the unclaimed assets. Our preference, as the House knows, would be to start with the unclaimed assets from the beginning and to have a parallel fund to the PPF, under the same administration, which would be endowed not with retrospective use of the levy, because we accept the principle on that, but with the unclaimed assets.
1164 That brings me to another curious question: why not entrust the administration of that separate scheme to the PPF itself? It sounds as if the time scale for that will be roughly the same as that for the PPF's coming into force, so why not just use the same people? That might be one option that is being considered, but it would certainly make sense to us.
I shall come in a moment to discuss compensation under the PPF, but one thing that is clear is that whatever compensation the 60,000—or some of them—will get will be significantly less than that which they would have received under the PPF arrangements. As I said, we have had very little detail. We will receive more, to which we look forward, but the Government still have to square the circle on how the £400 million will go round.
Finally—which with politicians generally means that they are roughly halfway through their remarks—I shall deal with the PPF itself, which will be the Bill's longterm legacy. Indeed, it is fair to say that it is the Bill's centrepiece. The Minister said in various speeches on Report that the Government have learned lessons from the American Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which, I should remind him, has a current deficit well in excess of $11 billion. I have visited the United States to meet people such as Steve Kandarian—as has the Minister—although I need not have bothered, as he came to London to give a lecture only a couple of weeks ago. He has given up the burden of running the PBGC, and the advice that he gave in Washington and in his London lecture was based on the PBGC's 30-year track record. First, one must get things right at the outset; otherwise, the political pressures against making significant changes are too great later on.
Secondly, one must have a proper risk-based levy at the outset. Of course, although the PBGC was set up to deal with the collapse of the Studebaker car company, none of its workers ever received any compensation and it was several years before benefits were paid out. However, we now know—the Minister let the information slip in Committee—that it could be 2009 or 2010 before the full risk-based levy is up and running for all companies. That is extraordinary. It will lead to all the additional problems of moral hazard and to the good subsidising the bad, and it will make nonsense of the early years of the PPF. We have long taken the view that the PPF will be highly vulnerable in its early stages. It is widely believed throughout the industry that its estimated £300 million cost is understated, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of schemes waiting to collapse into the welcoming arms of the PPF once it is up and running. Indeed, it could well face some significant claims in its early days.
An interesting side issue is the PPF's investment strategy—
§ Mr. Andrew Smith
The hon. Gentleman speculates that it will be 2009 before the levy is up and running for all companies, but he is able to arrive at that position only by virtue of the allowances that we have made in respect of triennial valuations. In terms of minimising the very regulatory burdens on business about which he would otherwise be complaining, it makes sense to allow some who have a valuation at the end of the period in question to have a valuation at the time. This is a 1165 sensible way to introduce the provision. It minimises the extra cost and regulatory burden on businesses and their schemes.
§ Mr. Waterson
With respect, the Secretary of State is explaining why we have this delay, rather than whether it is a good thing.[Interruption.] The Minister for Pensions asks what we think, and I shall come to that in a moment. I understand the point about the triennial cycle. In Committee, we suggested a stop-gap approach—I do not expect the Minister to remember; none of us has a memory that good—based on the recommendations of actuaries. As a temporary measure, one could rely on the old minimum funding requirement system. But what is clear is that it will be extremely bad news if the risk-based levy is not up and running by day one, or very close to it.
One of the unanswered questions in Committee was whether the PPF constitutes an insurance scheme or a pension fund. The Minister has memorably said that it is neither, but the answer makes an important difference to its investment strategy. Mr. Kandarian touched on this issue in his lecture, which the Minister unfortunately missed as he had other things to deal with. Of course, before leaving the PBGC, Mr. Kandarian changed its investment strategy in respect of equities and bonds. He likened the situation to a fund being set up to insure owners of Atlantic coast seafront properties against hurricanes and floods, only for the fund itself to invest its assets in such properties. There is a real danger in this regard, and we fail to listen to Mr. Kandarian at our peril.
The central issue is what people out there believe they will receive under the legislation. There is a danger of them running away with the idea that they are being given a full safety net or a full guarantee, whereas the reality is very different. If the Bill is a lifeboat, it is, for several reasons, a leaking lifeboat.
The first is the cap that is built into the Bill. Another is the 90 per cent. rate for people who are not retired, which we debated earlier today and yesterday. Another is indexation and the 1997 cut-off date. Organisations such as Age Concern have expressed concern that some pensioners might receive only 70 or 80 per cent. of what they had expected. There is also the Government's retained power to reduce benefits in what the Minister calls "extreme circumstances". As I said yesterday, extreme circumstances are likely to be when the fund does not have enough money. Finally, there is the Government's unwillingness to stand behind the PPF. For the average punter, the Government's willingness to do so would be the critical factor for establishing confidence in an occupational pension scheme.
§ Mr. Waterson
Well, we did not vote against the Bill on Second Reading and I will come on to Third Reading in a moment.[Interruption.] I am not in a position to commit the next Conservative Government to standing behind the PPF, but the Government should not have dismissed that option so lightly. I wonder whether 1166 Ministers met the same people and heard the same things as I did when I was in Washington. I did not meet a single person who dissented from the view that, if it came to it, the Federal Government would have to stand behind the PPF.
Our concern is that we want the Bill to work properly because we will have to inherit the problems that are built into it. The Minister for Pensions was right when, in a moment of revealing candour yesterday, he talked about rough justice. That is exactly what we are talking about. Clearly, the Bill does not necessarily provide full compensation—or anything like it.
Will the Bill achieve its central aim, which must be to restore confidence in the pension system? That is the cross-party aspiration. The Association of Consulting Actuaries has conducted a survey of employers since the Bill was published. It found that the majority of firms felt that the measures would decrease occupational pension scheme coverage. Fewer than one in 10 firms felt that the measure would improve pension coverage. About 64 per cent. thought that £15 for the levy per defined benefit scheme member would be too much; and more than three-quarters said that the new knowledge and understanding requirement placed on trustees would deter individuals from wishing to be trustees. Not much encouraging news there.
Only rarely do Governments have the opportunity to amend pensions law. I should know, because I served in Committee on the Pensions Act 1995. Faced with an unprecedented pensions crisis and a halving of savings in this country, the prsent Government have simply not risen to the challenge. They have produced legislation that is confused, complex and bureaucratic. They also failed to tackle the problem of the 60,000 people who have lost pensions—a problem crying out to be dealt with—until they were forced to in a panic through a last-minute assistance scheme. The Government have failed to do a single thing to encourage new defined benefit schemes or to keep existing ones open. Nothing in this flawed Bill will restore public confidence in the pensions system. In short, they have blown it.
We will not vote against the Bill on Third Reading any more than we voted against it on Second Reading. However, we hope that their lordships will improve the measure beyond recognition.
§ 4.4 pm
§ Mr. Tynan
First, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today. I was going to make this speech yesterday, but I have managed to hold on to it until today. I was very happy about new clause 34 yesterday, but I am concerned about the nuts and bolts of it. The proposals put before the House yesterday still cause me concern, as I made clear in an intervention earlier.
This is a very serious matter, and the Bill allows us to make real progress on it. Six of my constituents have lost their pensions, as I wanted to put on the record yesterday. Three of them—James Gilmour, Robert Heggison and a Mr. Sam Stevenson—worked at Motherwell Bridge Holdings, a firm which had lasted for 100 years. The firm went into receivership and was then recreated as a new company. My constituents lost their pensions as a result of that revolving-door receivership. I am worried that they will get nothing from the proposed fund.
1167 Two other constituents, Mr. Japp and Mr. Kenneth Barrie, worked for Melville Dundas in Hamilton, and I do not expect that they will face any problems. However, Mr. Colin Preston worked for the Bradstock company, and he wrote to me about the difficulties that could arise with his pension.
I welcome this important Bill. My hon. Friends on the Front Bench and others put in much hard work in Standing Committee, for which I am grateful. Much had to be done, and an enormous number of amendments were tabled. The Bill has been turned into something that will make a real difference to the people of this country.
The Bill is badly needed, because people had lost confidence in the pensions industry. I hope that the Bill will restore their confidence, but as I said, there remains one tiny element that requires attention.
I turn now to the pension credit and means testing. I read a speech—I think that it was made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson)—in which it was stated that people were being driven into poverty by means testing. However, my understanding is that means testing, as it is structured at present, lifts people out of poverty. It is therefore difficult to understand the claim made in the speech. The pension credit has helped pensioners enormously, and the Bill is another piece in the jigsaw puzzle.
§ John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab)
Would my hon. Friend be surprised to hear that 4,978 constituents of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) have been made in excess of £39.11 a week better off by the pension credit?
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will look very closely at the Opposition's policy, especially if they endanger the real benefits accruing from the pension credit.
I hope that next year's Pensions Commission report will be the final piece of the puzzle, and that it will recommend some form of compulsion. Amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) and me were not reached in the debate yesterday, but I hope that the proposals that they contain will be included in any future Bill.
This Bill has many excellent attributes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State deserves congratulations on introducing new clause 34 yesterday. He and my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions, as well as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), tabled many amendments in Standing Committee, and they did so with good humour. Many hon. Members will agree that new clause 34 was the provision that we were all waiting for.
I still have concerns, however. In my earlier intervention I said that people will examine closely what was said in yesterday's debate, and that they will look very carefully at the responses from Ministers. I mean no disrespect to ASW workers, but if they receive payments from the fund when other workers do not, I 1168 can see that a campaign will build up that will destroy the good work that has been done. We must be mindful of that.
I did not get the opportunity to speak yesterday, but I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who has done an enormous amount of work on this matter. I also wish to congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) and for Ayr (Sandra Osborne). The latter made an excellent contribution yesterday and she has fought doggedly for the people whom she represents.
No credit goes to the Opposition, however. The hon. Member for Eastbourne said today that this was a political issue. It should not be a political issue. The Government introduced the scheme because it is necessary, and it is unacceptable to play politics with people's pensions. People will see through the ploys of the official Opposition, who have not contributed in the right spirit to the Bill.
I sound a note of caution, because there are still many questions about the financial assistance scheme and what it will mean for the 60,000 who have lost their pensions. I look forward to seeing the draft regulations well before Royal Assent. Ministers have said that we should not hold out false hope, and I hope that that has not happened. Regardless of our opinion, individuals hear about a new scheme with £400 million of funds and they think that they will get a share of it. If they do not get that share, they will be disappointed.
The Bill has much more in it than the financial assistance scheme. We spent only one sitting out of 22 discussing that issue in Committee. We can welcome much else in the Bill, including the new regulator, the new TUPE arrangements, the consultation provisions and the PPF. Much depends on implementation. The Government need to consider how various aspects of the Bill will work in practice, including the consequence of the introduction of the levy and the savings from the streamlining of pensions administration. Employers need to recognise that pensions are part of pay and they need to provide pension schemes for their staff, just as they now need to pay the minimum wage.
The Bill is welcome and it will make a difference. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues and civil servants for all their hard work. I also thank Opposition Members—especially the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), in spite of what I have said—for making the Committee stage enlightening and enjoyable. No one can accuse the Government of not acting on the issue of pensions. I look forward to seeing the changes from next April, when the regulator and the PPF come into force. I also look forward to many of my constituents now having a better life.
§ Mr. Webb
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), who was one of the Labour Members who served in Committee. Those Labour Members were of uncharacteristically high quality—I shall leave it to them to work out whether that is a compliment or not. Certainly, they were knowledgeable about pensions and participated in the debate. They were not just lobby fodder, which is always a good thing, and they wrung one or two concessions 1169 out of the Government. For example, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) ensured that the report on women's pensions would be published next year. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) also worked hard.
It was good to be on a Committee in which all members participated fully, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) and the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price). We were grateful to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and his colleague, who ensured that the views of all the outside organisations were brought to the Committee's attention. We also appreciated the Ministers' contributions.
It was a little harsh to suggest that the Minister for Pensions lacks a sense of humour: he certainly needed one at times. I also thank him for engaging with the specific points that were raised. Although his answers were on occasion less than wholly convincing, at least he tried to address the points made, which made it feel a little more worth while going through 22 sittings knowing that every amendment one tabled would not be accepted. We are grateful to the Minister for Pensions for that, and we also appreciated the able assistance of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who will now be known as the Minister for fraud and error.
We should also thank the officials. The original explanatory notes on a Bill are often paraphrases of the clauses and do not explain anything. However, the Government wrote this Bill as they went along, and the explanatory notes were often very useful. It may be the same people who write both sets of notes—it is a mystery to me—but the later explanatory notes gave more clue of what was going on than the original explanatory notes. I am not suggesting that the Government should write Bills as they go along, but we were grateful for those briefings.
With my usual prescience I described the Bill, on the eve of its publication, as half-baked, but I think I was guilty of exaggeration. It has grown substantially since Second Reading; it will get even thicker once the pages and pages of new clauses and amendments on Report have been added, and it ain't finished yet. We understand that their lordships will be given even more new clauses that the Government have not yet had the chance to write. In Committee, I likened that process to the moment when Wallace and Gromit were careering along in a train, furiously laying more and more track in front of them. Sometimes, the Bill felt like that. In the long run it does not make for good legislation. It would be nice to think that the Government have got away with it and have not unwittingly put gaping holes into the Bill at the last minute, but give n the length of the Bill, there is a danger that we have allowed through some provisions that will have, the unintended consequences of which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) spoke, and that would be regrettable.
There is much to welcome in the Bill. Mr. Alan Pickering called for a new kind a regulator—not a regulator who waits for people to complain, but one who goes out looking for trouble, like the Lone Ranger, and tries to do something about it, or who tries to prevent trouble in the first place. A proactive regulator is certainly a step in the right direction.
1170 The Bill has some slightly worrying parallels with the Pensions Act 1995. No doubt when the House was debating that Bill's Third Reading, some Members said, "It's great, we've created a new pensions regulator called OPRA which will be the answer to all our problems"; yet nine years later, here we are abolishing OPRA. At that time, no doubt Members said, "It's great, we've put in a minimum funding requirement to protect pension funds". Now, eight or nine years later, we are having to pick up the pieces of a measure that was not properly scrutinised. It did not set minimum funding at an adequate level, so people fell through the net. The 1995 Act introduced protection against fraud. The Bill introduces new protection. I hope that in another decade we shall not have to undo the problems caused by the Bill.
The extension of TUPE to cover pensions is welcome. Pensions should be part of the overall package. However, the political debate on the Bill has focused on the pension protection fund, and I shall touch on that later.
There was a missed opportunity in the Bill: the provisions on state pensions were very thin. Governments do not often legislate on pensions, and although the legislative book was open the Government missed the chance to do something substantive, especially on women's pensions. One of the groups of amendments that we did not reach was our set of proposals on women's pensions; I was especially disappointed that we could not discuss our provisions for women whose contribution record was less than 25 per cent. The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) raised the issue of annuities, and much could be done about the state regime. There will be a report next year, which is all very well, but the problems on women's pensions were listed in the Green Paper and we are still no nearer tackling them. That is a missed opportunity.
§ Gregory Barker
The hon. Gentleman is right: the Bill is a missed opportunity in respect of the state pension. Can he confirm whether it is Liberal policy to restore the earnings link?
§ Mr. Webb
Unfortunately, we had no chance to debate that issue during our proceedings. However, as my colleague who speaks for older people has pointed out, we think it is so important that we are dedicating a major section of our autumn conference to the launch of our policy, so the hon. Gentleman can look forward to finding out the details at that stage.
The key point of the Bill is the pension protection fund. I shall not rehearse the concerns that we expressed earlier, but my noble Friends are particularly worried by the failure to introduce a risk-based premium early on. That could penalise well run schemes at the expense of the cowboys, and we are especially concerned about that feature of the scheme.
On Second Reading, the key omission was something for the 60,000 workers. I hope that the Secretary of State can give me a better answer than he did to an intervention on that point. When asked about that number, he said that, yes, 60,000 was the right sort of number. However, when he confirmed that figure, what did he think the question was? Sixty thousand people 1171 who did what? I presume that 60,000 is the number of people who have lost their pensions because underfunded pension schemes have closed or been wound up, but no one was then talking about excluding solvent employers.
I am pretty sure that the 60,000 figure, which comes from the pensions action group, has throughout included members of solvent schemes. If they are included in the 60,000 and the Government plan to exclude them under the Bill, how many of them will not receive compensation? If the pre-1997 wind-ups are taken into account, how many will be excluded? The danger is that the figure will be perhaps 10,000 or 15,000. We do not know the figure, but I hope that the ministerial report will tell us at the end of June how many of those 60,000 people will be excluded under the Government's provisions.
The Minister said yesterday that solvent employers should be held responsible for the underfunding of their schemes. However, solvent employers were allowed to close pension schemes under the old law that satisfied only the minimum funding requirement. The MFR did not provide full buy-out, so those people received less of a pension than they expected. As the hon. Member for Hamilton, South said, why is their moral claim to the pension that they expected any weaker because of the circumstances that led to the loss of their pension? It is not their fault that a solvent employer caused their pension to close, rather than it closing because their employer went out of business. Are we saying that it would be better for them if their employer had gone out of business than if it had remained solvent? According to the Government's logic, those people are somehow less deserving because their firm is still operating.
If the Government are right and they want to do something for those people and chase the solvent employers to recover the deficit in the schemes, that would be a satisfactory answer, but they may simply say, "Well, it's tough." The Government seem to be saying, "We sympathise, but a line must be drawn somewhere. It's tough." That would be wholly unacceptable.
§ Mr. Webb
No. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I will not give way, because a lot of hon. Members want to contribute.
I hope that the Government will give further thought to the position of those people. Large numbers of employees of solvent employers are profoundly bitter that, after campaigning alongside their colleagues from insolvent employers, they will get nothing. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us in responding to the debate about the Government's strategy for those people, whose moral case is just as good.
The Bill inevitably misses an opportunity with state pensions. Clearly, we need action on women's pensions in particular, and the Bill says practically nothing about them.
We have supported the principle of the Bill throughout. We voted for the Bill on Second Reading—we did not decline to do so, unlike some—because we want people's pensions to be protected. That is why I 1172 will ask all my colleagues, who are scattered around the parliamentary estate, to come in and vote for the Bill on Third Reading when the moment comes. That is what we should do, but there are concerns about the way that the PPF will work, particularly in penalising good schemes if the risk-based premium is not dealt with early. We remain very concerned that the financial assistance scheme—albeit a small step in the right direction—will create new injustices, and it would be better to get it right first time during the consultation phase than to draw lines that create unfair and arbitrary distinctions.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab)
I cannot remember the last time when, in effect, we said goodbye to a Bill to send it to the Lords that was such good news both for our supporters and for the country in general. I would not want that fact to go amiss, but to be personal about those on the Treasury Bench, while that is good news for the country, it is a good day for the Ministers who have seen the Bill through. Their names are attached to the Bill, and I am sure that they will look back in future years to the significance of their contribution to the development of safe pensions in this country.
Ministers have worked hard, and so, too, has the Bill team. Any Bill puts a fair amount of pressure on civil servants, but if it becomes akin to a roller towel—seemingly endless—their work is made trebly difficult. I am sure that over the drinks this evening, the Secretary of State will convey the thanks of the House for the extraordinary effort that the Bill team has made.
Three red lights are beginning to be seen in the Bill. Two years ago, several Labour Members tried to introduce a modest pensions Bill. which might have played a small role in shaping the Government's proposals. One of our ideas was to have a much fairer winding-up order, so that the formula would reflect significant contributions that people had made over the years. The most worrying—to me—piece of information that emerged from the debate was the industry's claim that membership records were such that it would be unable to give the Government people's contract years so that their eligibility under a years-based contribution formula could be worked out. If that is typical of the whole industry, a mega-problem looms in relation to the records that govern people's eligibility for occupational pensions.
The second red light has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan). I suppose that I am the only Labour Member who is not especially happy that £400 million of taxpayers' money has been found to fund compensation—help, assistance, whatever one wants to call it—under new clause 34. In retirement our nation is divided into two groups: the most privileged, who have occupational pensions, and—generally speaking—the rest. The Government, for reasons best known to themselves, have decided to put in a further £400 million of taxpayers' money to the sector that already draws most taxpayers' assistance and those pensioners who—generally speaking—are most well placed to face retirement. However, like other hon. Members, I believe that the fund will not be adequate. We want the Treasury not to put its hand deeper into our tax-paying constituents' pockets, but to look to unclaimed assets to make good any shortfall.
1173 My hon. Friend also mentioned the third and final red light: eligibility. Before the Government let the guillotine fall on the eligibility date, which will determine who is in the scheme and who is not, will they prepare for the House a detailed note on how many people they think would be brought within the scheme for each year that the eligibility date was moved back? I believe that the number of people in addition to the 60,000 who would be brought in from past years is quite small. The danger in relation to new clause 34 comes from employers who might find a way to dump their pension liabilities on to the scheme, not from those who have already done so.
§ Mr. Field
No, because many others want to speak.
Those are my three red lights. I end with a question: what does it say about our procedure for consulting on, drafting and introducing Bills in Parliament when perhaps the most popular part of the Bill did not appear on the printed page at Second Reading? There must be lessons in that to be learned by a Government who, rightly, say that they listen.
§ Mr. Fallon
As I made clear to the House on Tuesday, I have substantial reservations about the Bill, including the £400 million size of the fund, on which the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) signalled a red light. There does not appear to be a rational explanation for that figure. The Secretary of State again suggested that £400 million would be enough to last 20 years, but I very much doubt that. I am happy to wager with him, but I do not think that it will last two years, given the scale of the problem and the speed with which cases could be submitted. Either the levy will be accelerated, advanced or intensified, or the Government must come back to the House, or the Secretary of State must go back to the Treasury, for an additional sum. If that is the case, it would be more honest to admit it now, or at least substantiate the choice of the figure of £400 million. I certainly caution shadow spokesmen against suggesting that the Government should hack the fund, as that would be a contingent liability, about which we complain but which ought to be properly scored, if accepted, in the Red Book. That contingent liability would quickly turn into a real one.
I do not think that £400 million will be adequate. To his credit, the Secretary of State said that it was not tea and sympathy but, equally, it was not compensation. It was a sum that he had set aside for a predicted number of cases—the kindest way of putting it is that it was his best stab. The sum will not, in fact, be adequate, and the fund's address will become one of the better known addresses in our city.
§ Gregory Barker
Does my hon. Friend share my view that the Minister is in a predicament partly because he was not party to the decisions that produced the figure in the first place? It was not calculated in a great arithmetical exercise by his Department and civil 1174 servants, but was dreamt up in a private meeting following much arm-twisting between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
§ Mr. Fallon
My hon. Friend is right. If the figure was a proper one, it would be included in the Bill, and there would be a memorandum explaining, analysing and justifying it to the House. However, it was not, and was clearly cobbled together at the last moment.
§ Mr. Andrew Smith
Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that the premise of the intervention by his hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) was inaccurate and untrue?
§ Mr. Fallon
I am not sure that I want to go down that route, as I have no way of knowing whether it was inaccurate or untrue. Certainly, the figure of £400 million seemed to emerge at rather a late stage, and is easily divisible by the figure 20. Leaving that aside, however, my next major reservation, which I voiced in the House on Tuesday, is an unfashionable one. Everyone in the House wishes the Government well in tackling well-publicised and obvious abuses, but it is worth pointing out that the powers that they are taking, particularly in clauses 35 to 46, are extremely draconian and are likely to damage business and investment in it.
I shall give the House three brief examples of how wide the regulator's powers are. Under clause 39, it is for the regulator to decide whether or not an employer "is insufficiently resourced". Various definitions of that phrase are given in clause 40, but it is for the regulator to decide whether an employer is insufficiently resourced, and whether somebody else—it does not have to be a director, and could be a shareholder, an investor or an associate of the director—could make up the deficit. That is far too flimsy a basis on which the regulator can take action. The liabilities are described in an incredibly vague way. In clause 41, the employer's pension liabilities are defined asthe liabilities for any amounts payable …and…the liabilities for any debt which is or may become due …or otherwise.I do not know what "or otherwise" means. It could mean almost anything.
Thirdly, as we discussed briefly on Tuesday evening, the powers given to the regulator to pursue people for their personal assets are incredibly wide ranging. The regulator can seize the assets—the personal assets, the homes and the wealth—of directors, of shareholders, of investors, of associates and even of friends of the directors of the particular company. That is simply a matter for the regulator to decide. It is left to his opinion. It was the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), I think, who said there need not be an appeal provision because that can be judicially reviewed. He and I disagree about that.
I think the power is too wide and it should be limited in the Bill and subject to some kind of appeal mechanism. If it is not, the effect of the clauses will be damaging in two respects. First, we can predict that on the day the Act comes into force, a large number of companies will be placed in receivership. If the Secretary of State does not believe that, I must ask him whether he really thinks that directors, shareholders, investors and even associates of directors will put at risk their own 1175 homes and assets, rather than put companies immediately into receivership if they are concerned about potential pension fund liabilities. That is a profound mistake.
Secondly, if that is true, it follows necessarily that exactly the kind of people whom we are encouraging to invest in our companies will be less likely to do so. In an intervention, I gave the example where an investor from company B may be deciding to invest in company A. Neither of those companies has any connection with a pension fund, but it transpires that company A is associated with company C, which happens to have some potential difficulty with its pension fund. That, of course, will discourage precisely the kind of business investment that everybody wants.
I am not entirely convinced that the Secretary of State intends it, but I assure him that those are likely to be the effects. In his defence, I suppose it can be said that the provisions that I am describing—clause 35 onwards—have been rushed. They were added to the Bill at a very late stage, right at the end of the Standing Committee proceedings. They were only briefly considered by the House and even then, all bundled together, on Tuesday evening. That is a bad way to legislate, and I suggest to the House that those clauses need re-examining in another place.
§ Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab)
For many years, I had the dubious privilege of serving on the Committee that considered every social security Bill that went though the House. Not one of them gave me the pleasure that this Bill has. Sadly, I did not serve on the Standing Committee considering it. For the one time there is good news around, I was excluded. There is probably a message for me in that.
We need to understand that in every workplace in the country over the past four or five years, the biggest single issue has been security—security of employment and security of pension. When we look back at a decade of financial scandals that go wider than pensions—for example, BCCI, Barings bank, Equitable Life—there is a general suspicion out there, rightly, that the whole financial world is a nest of vipers ready to rob people of their money and escape to sunnier climes.
There may be imperfections in the Bill that still need ironing out, but its provisions restore people's peace of mind like nothing has in the past 50 years. The Bill will also reinforce the confidence of people engaging in the savings habit. We know that the savings ratio goes up and down, and there are debates about what it should be. The Bill will give people confidence in the general financial services sector and encourage them to place their money in savings again. We need to understand that.
I want to restrict my remarks to clause 224, which concerns the requirement for knowledge and understanding by individual trustees. In 1986, I was appointed chairman of the west Yorkshire superannuation fund, which had 45,000 contributors, thousands of beneficiaries and £2.5 billion-worth of assets. I had no qualifications to hold that position, had received no training and had never been a trustee of a 1176 pension scheme, but because of the political circumstances in west Yorkshire at the time, I was made chairman of that august organisation. I am happy to say that when I left four years later, the fund had nearly £4 billion in assets, so perhaps I did not do such a bad job.
The way in which member trustees are chosen requires serious consideration—for example, men are chosen too often. For too often, Joe, for example, who has worked for an organisation for 40 years, who is a good egg, who buys his round down at the pub and who is popular, is chosen. That is not good enough. Whenever somebody takes out a financial services product, they must consult an independent financial adviser. On mortgages, for example, three levels of service are available, from execution only to full advice. However, pensions affect people for between one third and one quarter of their lives, but people do not know whose hands their pensions are in. Trustees of pension funds are often rank amateurs, and, although I do not intend to disparage any individual who is a trustee, we must do better.
Clause 224(4) states:An individual to whom this section applies must have knowledge and understanding of the law relating to pensions and trusts".The Library contains about 47 yd of books on the law relating to trusts, never mind pensions. The wonderful Child Poverty Action Group handbook contains 700 pages on pension law, but that is a brief summary. We must move to a situation in which courses, which lead to an NVQ2 or NVQ3, are run in centres around the country to a set curriculum, proving that people understand the matter. Most occupational pension funds exist in organisations where trade unions are recognised, and it would be magnificent to use the union learning fund and the union modernisation fund to provide training and education so that member trustees have the understanding to challenge the experts.
In every single scheme that has gone down, the money was there at one time, but then it was gone. In those circumstances, where were the auditors and the actuaries on the minimum funding requirement, and who was signing off statements? Frankly, member trustees have been deceived, duped and misled. I should not say anything else because legal cases may occur, but we must give member trustees the tools to do the job. It is not sufficient simply to put a clause in a Bill, and I would like training to be provided.
We have all received copious briefing notes about the situation from the TUC over many months. The TUC needs to put up, because it has a responsibility in the matter, as members of trade unions are suffering as a result of how things were done in the past. Trade unions must be honest enough to say, "We want the highest quality member representatives as trustees that we can get, and we will play our part in doing that." I feel very strongly about that, and I hope that my friend the Minister, who has been with me in the trenches over many years, will take my suggestion forward.
Over the course of many months, the Secretary of State and the Minister have consulted, questioned, discussed and debated with Members of this House—I think on both sides, but certainly on the Labour Benches—to try to find ways to get out of the mess that 1177 we were in. I thank them for the openness, frankness and candour of those discussions, because the Bill that we have today is the better for it.
§ Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP)
I am pleased to be called to speak in the Third Reading debate on this very important Bill.
The Bill is welcome in general terms. Its innovations include the pension protection fund, which I am pleased to see come to fruition, although it is somewhat overdue. The creation of the office of the pensions regulator is welcome, but I hope that its regulation will work better than has often been the case in the recent past. I hope that those measures will go some way towards restoring confidence in the pensions sector, which has sunk to an all-time low in recent years.
The report on women and pensions is a step in the right direction, and I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on wresting that concession from the Government. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) that the Bill is a missed opportunity in that it fails to make substantive progress in that important area.
I welcome the Government amendments that were tabled, albeit at the eleventh hour, on the key issue of compensation for workers who, through no fault of their own, have lost out on their occupational pensions. During yesterday's constructive debate, Members on both sides of the House acknowledged that it was a good day for politics—leaving aside the dreadful events of the afternoon—because it showed that the Government were actually listening to the people whom they are there to serve, which has become extremely unusual.
It was helpful to receive some clarification on the likely timetable for the roll-out of the proposals. I am glad that we secured the confirmation that they will be dealt with by the affirmative resolution procedure, which will allow each hon. Member to vote on the detail of the proposals in accordance with the statements that they have already made.
I very much regret that during yesterday's debate the Minister resisted all attempts to extract details of the likely level of compensation that workers may expect to receive. Many of them have waited years for action and justifiably want to know, in light of the proposals put forward last Friday, what percentage of their lost pension they may expect to receive. We were not given any meaningful information on that.; nor were we given any reasonable explanation of how the £400 million figure was arrived at. With all due respect to the Secretary of State, neither did we get that information today. I fear that down the line many workers may find that the payout that they receive is much less than that for which they are now hoping. We await the specific proposals that the Government are to bring forward by the autumn.
The Minister and the Secretary of State should be aware that they must come up with the goods. They promised yesterday and today that the proposals would result in "significant help." I appreciate that the new Labour Government have frequently stretched the English language—the Minister of State for the armed forces gave an interesting definition of "report" in a recent Adjournment debate—but "significant" means 1178 just that to every normal thinking person. The Government have promised significant help and they must deliver. Any failure to respond to the workers' legitimate case will be rightly regarded as entirely cynical.
Apart from the important issue of women and pensions, the Bill represents a missed opportunity on another key matter. It fails to provide for restoring the link between pensions and earnings. The Tories first broke that link, but, like many other policies, new Labour took it up enthusiastically when it was elected in 1997. It has left many pensioners in poverty and that is unacceptable in an enlightened 21st century. Instead of a clear commitment to providing a decent, basic state pension, we have an approach based on means-testing that is unduly complex, costly to administer and acts as a disincentive to save. It is therefore a pity that the Government have not seen fit to take the opportunity of the Bill to tackle pensioner poverty head on. That will neither go unnoticed nor be forgiven by pensioners in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I conclude by saying that, leaving the matters of concern to one side, the Bill is generally welcome and I am happy to lend my party's support to it on Third Reading.
§ Kevin Brennan
I join in the welcome for the Bill. I particularly welcome the changes that were made yesterday through the incorporation of new clause 24 and assistance for those who have potentially lost their pensions as a result of insolvency. I echo the comments of other hon. Members who have spoken about the need to ensure that, in working out the detail of the package, the assistance for those workers is substantial. That was the word I used yesterday, and "significant" has been used today. It is vital that that happens and I believe that it is the Government's intention. We look forward to seeing the detail as it emerges but I fully understand that it is impossible for it to emerge now.
I have probably said far too much about the subject in the past couple of years, so I thought that on Third Reading I would simply do the honours and pay tribute to a few hon. Members who have been particularly active. The newspapers recently described the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) as the Tories' youthful Tony Blair. They appeared to believe that the hon. Gentleman was younger than he is and gave the impression that his pensions expertise was remarkable since his only recent dealings with finance had been with his pocket money. That is not so: he has acquired much expertise.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), who detained us for rather a long time this afternoon, has brought his wit to most of our proceedings. After his comments today, he may become known as the hon. Member for Wither-on-the-Vine. The hon. Gentleman thanked people from outside who had helped with the Bill, and has the admirable quality of being able to present the views of those outside without venturing an opinion of his own.
The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) is sadly not in his place. I accidentally got hold of some of his notes, including a couple of the "what ifs?" that he did 1179 not ask about, the first of which was, "What if a great flood were to cover the earth and sweep away all pensioners' records?", and the second of which was, "What if a large comet were to land and destroy the pension protection fund headquarters?" I think perhaps the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) might have given him that particular "what if?".
I should like to thank my very good hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), who was sneakily running caption competitions for the paintings in the Committee Room, but should be mentioned none the less.
I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson). As Wellington might have said, "I don't know what they do to the enemy, but they certainly scare the life out of me." They held the Government properly to account with the many amendments that they tabled, and in doing so made sure that the rights of workers were being championed in Committee.
I could not end without mentioning my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions. He has the features and demeanour of an urbane Roman governor in a sleepy outpost of empire. That is not a very good description of the Department for Work and Pensions, which is not a sleepy outpost but an absolutely vital Department at the heart of the Government—and a very successful one, as we have seen during our deliberations on the Bill.
I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) developing his own line in stand-up comedy here in the Chamber last night. Apparently it is not true that he is going to combine his skills as a pensions expert with his new-found comic talents to star in a new British comedy film called "Love Actuary". [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] That was pretty bad, was it not? Enough of this.
Finally, I should like seriously to thank the Secretary of State for his efforts on the Bill, and his Bill team, who have rightly been mentioned and who have had to work extremely hard. In my view my right hon. Friend is a thoroughly decent man. The fact that this is one of the most progressive—if not the most progressive—pieces of legislation that we have seen for some time is entirely due to his thoroughly decent instincts. Those instincts were in evidence when he met the many workers from around the country—not only from Allied Steel and Wire but from many other companies—who impressed him with their human stories. He then had the imagination to see beyond the standard bureaucratic answer that it was "not on", or impossible to act retrospectively. He saw beyond that to the human reality of the situation facing those people, and I believe that that is a major reason why the Bill now contains provisions to help them.
We have conducted our proceedings with good spirit, and I pay tribute to every party represented. Members on both sides have attempted to scrutinise the Bill in good spirit most of the time. We have done our job, and it is now up to the other place to finish off the details. I believe that we shall be able to look back on these proceedings not in anger but with pride in the years to come, and I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
The Government cannot solve every problem in society, but where there are clear examples of personal tragedy and the ability exists for the Government to do something about them, they have a clear duty to do so. This Government have faced up to that duty. The provisions that are being introduced to deal with insolvent employers are to be welcomed, although only as a first step. Many other steps will need to be taken to address this problem as time goes on. It is, however, a major step in the right direction, in terms of the principle that has been adopted. It will not solve all the problems of those who have lost out when a firm has become insolvent, but at least it is a start. Many other questions about the extent of compensation or assistance are bound to arise.
The Government have put forward £400 million over 20 years to help to address the serious losses that some people now face. I fear that that will not nearly be enough, but I welcome the fact that the legislation, the figures and the amounts will be reviewed every three years.
No one can deny the financial disaster faced by those who have paid into company pensions for decades to look after themselves and their families in old age only to find that the money has gone and their retirement has been ruined, and that the security for which they paid during their working lives has been wiped out through no fault of their own. In Northern Ireland, we have many examples of that personal economic disaster. My party colleagues in Northern Ireland, along with many others all over the United Kingdom, have campaigned on behalf of those who have lost out. The case of Richardsons Fertilizers in Northern Ireland in particular, and the need for action, has been highlighted. My hon. Friends the Members for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) have been particularly active on that issue, as some of those most affected have been from their constituencies.
There is also a serious concern about the loophole in the case of companies that do not declare insolvency but decide to uproot and move to other parts of the world, leaving a deficit in the pension scheme. I was pleased to hear yesterday that the Minister gave an undertaking that an Order in Council would be introduced to ensure that this Bill would apply to Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland welcome that. It is right that the people of Northern Ireland should receive the same compensation, at the same time, as everyone else in the United Kingdom.
That case not only highlights the fact that the same provisions should exist in relation to pensions throughout the United Kingdom, but strengthens the argument that the same legislation should extend right across the UK. Even were devolution up and running in Northern Ireland, the ability of Northern Ireland to legislate on matters such as pensions and benefits is really just theoretical, because we must bow to the parity argument. It may be wise to consider the issue of pensions and benefits in the same way as income tax, and have one set of legislation for the entire United Kingdom.
There are few examples today of Governments reacting to pressure or campaigns, but this has been an exception. All those, including Labour Members, 1181 members of various other parties and ordinary people, who have fought a good fight in this case have been at least partially rewarded. These provisions are to be welcomed, but the battle to protect those who have lost out through no fault of their own will have to continue, and I am sure that the Government recognise that.
§ 5.3 pm
§ John Robertson
I was not ready for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Laughter.] Perhaps I should explain some of the laughter, Sir. Having sat here for all of Tuesday, and having lost half my amendments towards the end of the day, and having come in yesterday to see that there was no chance of getting in, today would appear to have been another chance lost. Obviously, you have seen the error of my ways and picked me, and I am grateful for it.
I would like to use this opportunity to take a brief overview of the Bill as amended, to consider how we got here and what lessons have been learned. In many ways, the progress of the Pensions Bill has shown the House of Commons at its best.
First, the substance of the Bill is important in rebutting the arguments of those who say that politics cannot make a difference. Few issues are of greater long-term importance to us than how we will support ourselves when we are too old to work. For that reason, the risk of workers contributing to their pension, sometimes for 40 years, only to see it vanish overnight, is rightly viewed with horror and fear by most people. The Pensions Bill ends that scandal. It makes a difference.
Secondly, the work done by Ministers, Labour Back Benchers and the Opposition has at times been fruitful. It has even been quite funny on some occasions. Like many hon. Members, on Second Reading I welcomed both the principles behind the Bill and the measures introduced. Again like many other Members, I asked the Minister to offer help to people who had already lost most of, in some cases all of, their final salary pensions when their employers had gone bust. Our arguments were pressed further in Committee, and were the subject of subsequent Government amendments. Opposition and Back-Bench Members played their part, and we can all have a sense of shared ownership of the Bill's final content.
I hope, as the Minister hoped yesterday, that a degree of consensus has been engendered that will enable all Members to support the Bill as it stands. My only concerns relate to the way in which the Report stage was conducted. Owing to the sheer number of Government amendments, there was not enough time for us to consider many of those tabled by Opposition and Back-Bench Members. The other day my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and I tabled several amendments that were reached with minutes to spare before 7 pm. That meant that important issues such as implementation of the Government's commitment to extending the protection afforded by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 could not be afforded the discussion that they deserved.
1182 The TUC, Amicus, Connect and other unions want to ensure that no pension scheme member faces inadequate pension protection as a result of a TUPE transfer. That is why we tabled an amendment to clause 229 with the simple requirement that the receiving employer provide benefits broadly comparable, or of broadly equal value, to the benefits provided by the original scheme. Sadly, the amendment was negatived, but it is important for us not to lose sight of all that has been achieved. Clauses 228 and 229, for instance, introduce a minimum level of pension protection where a business transfer occurs and the TUPE regulations apply. In declining to accept my amendment, my hon. Friend the Minister asked me to acknowledge the progress that had been made, and I am more than happy to do so.
On Second Reading, I described the Bill as the antithesis of laissez-faire Thatcherism. It sets out clearly the Government's responsibility to their citizens. In arguing for more support for pensioners, the hon. Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) have happily jettisoned the ideology that we owe no duty to those of our fellow men and women in need. Lady Thatcher must be seething in the other place at that ideological inconsistency, but if it is any consolation to those hon. Members, I welcome their change of heart.
I was rather saddened when the hon. Member for Eastbourne said he would not stand behind the PPF in the future. The Opposition parties seem to be taking a Scrooge-like attitude on Third Reading. Hopefully, when Christmas day comes along they, like Scrooge, will look out of the window and say "We were only kidding: go and get that big goose".
§ Mr. Waterson
We are a bit far away from Christmas—but let me correct one statement in the hon. Gentleman's otherwise useful speech. I did not say that we would not stand behind the PPF; I said that I was not currently in a position to commit my party. Nevertheless, I think it unconvincing for the Government to present a PPF that has no backing from the Government. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with that.
§ John Robertson
In many ways, that makes my case. I believe that on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading, we have produced a Bill that no other Government have even thought about. In years gone by—and the Tories had 18 years in office—no one thought about the people who had lost their pensions. This Government have produced a Bill that has never been produced before—albeit because many other Members have pushed them into it, but I think that that is how government should work. Governments must listen to the people. I think that it is childish of Opposition Members to attack the Government for trying to do the best job that they can. It is easy to say that the legislation will not work, but let us have a look at it in 10 years' time, and then turn round and say whether it did or did not work. We can then have the arguments about what was right and what was wrong, and whether these measures were the best that could be put together at the time.
We have all worked well to achieve a Bill on which there is now wide consensus. As amended, the Pensions Bill will help those who have lost their pensions and, 1183 most importantly for the pensions industry, boost confidence in pensions and set a long-term framework for future protection. It is my belief that if we can instil confidence in people's having pensions, the PPF will not be required. It is most important that all Members side with the Government on the Bill. I shall be very disappointed if there is a vote on Third Reading, and if there is, I can only say to the Members who call it that they do not really care about the people who need help most.
§ Gregory Barker
I shall begin[Interruption.] I was going to begin with some uncharacteristic generosity towards Labour Members, but perhaps I should move on.
I was going to say that it was a real privilege to serve on the Pensions Bill Committee. Although my part there was largely a non-speaking role behind the scenes, I was nevertheless able to observe a large number of high-quality, thoughtful interventions and speeches from both sides. Although the point of view on the two sides may have been profoundly different, most Members who spoke were motivated by a genuine concern to do their best for pensioners and for their constituents. It was clear that those Members had not just been allocated to a Committee, but were expressing concerns and articulating worries on a campaign and on issues that they had followed for many years. I certainly came out of the Committee a great deal wiser than I went in, having learned from Members on both sides. The public would have been pleased to see their legislators, who often get a bad press, acting responsibly.
I must single out for praise, however, my own Front-Bench team. I do so because they were a very real match for a high-quality ministerial team on the other side, but with a fraction of the resources—
§ Gregory Barker
The hon. Gentleman is wasted in his present job; he really should go into vaudeville.
The key point, which people often do not realise, is the small resource that is available to the Opposition. A torrent of amendments and new clauses kept coming all the way through the Committee stage—they involved a great deal of complex information and required overnight study—yet my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) was able to get right to the nub of some difficult issues, which I do not pretend fully to understand. Often, only after he had sat down was I able to get my mind round them. He did that with a fraction of the support staff that Ministers had.
The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) referred to Wallace and Gromit, and I can see that parallel clearly. As we were presented with more and more amendments and new clauses, it very much felt as if someone were laying new track in front of an out-of-control railway engine. I must say, however, that I felt rather more like I occasionally do when I am helping my eight-year-old son with his maths homework, and I am just one page ahead of him. I sometimes got the feeling that that was how the Minister felt, too, as he spoke rather more slowly and looked eagerly towards the Box.
1184 No issue has given us greater cause to worry that the Government did not know what was coming next than that of new clause 24 and the £400 million-worth of compensation. To all intents and purposes, that figure could have been arrived at by Wallace and Gromit or plucked out of my son's maths textbook. The Minister has offered no intellectual rationale for it. He has not given us the benefit of any papers, or presented a thought-through argument as to why £400 million is the right figure, rather than £350 million, £500 million, £450 million or £426 million. No intellectual case has been made.
All the Government have said is that £400 million is a big sum. Well, we are dealing with big sums in the pensions field, and all figures are relative. In the national health budget, £400 million is a drop in the ocean, yet to an individual it is a huge sum; indeed, it is more than most people can even comprehend. Probably only the very largest of Labour donors, such as Bernie Ecclestone and the of hers who frequently put their hand in their pocket for the people's party, could really get their minds around £400 million. So I look forward to seeing the papers—perhaps we will see them in the Minister's memoirs—that show how the Government arrived at this extraordinarily round and convenient figure.
What does £400 million actually mean? I understand that the Minister does not want to get drawn into discussing this issue, that there is no guarantee, and that he cannot give precise details; indeed, I would not expect him to say anything that might give people a misguided idea of what to expect. However, it is extraordinary that he should be unable to provide any range in terms of what that figure means. The reality is that £20 million a year for the 60,000 people in question—that is what the £400 million amounts to—equates to some £330 per claimant, on average. There are obvious ways in which that money could be graded, and it is clear that some people will claim and others will not, but the figure that we are working with is £330 per individual.[Interruption.] The Minister furrows his brow, but that is the calculation, and there are only so many ways in which one can stretch or condense that money. We are not convinced that the Government have done their calculations.
It is all very well having a knockabout debate in which numbers are bandied about, but we must not forget that behind the figures lies very real personal tragedy. Indeed, all Members will have received correspondence from many constituents who have been ruined, and whose old age has been devastated by the loss of a pension. For many people, such a pension was their only other meaningful form of savings, yet they have been wiped out. We remain particularly and profoundly concerned about victims of situations in which pension funds have been wound up, yet the parent company has not become insolvent, remains in operation—perhaps abroad—and has effectively robbed such people of their life-savings.
A constituent of mine, from Burwash Common, is surely typical of many constituents throughout the country. He will feel very let down, and he will want to know what more the Government can do. Tea and sympathy is not enough for people in his predicament. He wrote to tell me:The money we contributed for our pension has, by law, been stolen and used to pay the pensions of others.1185 He argued forcefully:Nobody warned us of the risks we were taking, not the DWP, not OPRA, OPAS, NAPF, in fact, they encouraged us to join. Many people had to join their pension scheme; it was a condition of employment. The Inland Revenue prohibited belonging to a private scheme as well as an occupational scheme.In my constituent's case, theparent company … Ballast Nedam, continues to trade in Holland"—and quite successfully. Nothing in the Bill goes anywhere near addressing the plight of the large body of pensioners throughout the country who have suffered. We certainly want to see more action taken to help them.
I realise that other hon. Members want to contribute, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I am sorry that we were unable to debate this afternoon the restoration of the earnings link. I believe that the Government's promotion of a means-test culture is disgraceful. It is no wonder that we have seen a collapse in responsible saving, with 59 per cent. of pensioners now on means tests. By the Government's own admission, that is going to rise to 82 per cent.
When we return to Government, we will restore the link to earnings. In the 21st century, that is a great policy because it is simple. It is a wonderful example of where both morality and efficiency march hand in hand. It is a simple policy that people can understand, which will bring back stability and predictability into a volatile sector. So many of our constituents' lives lack the personal sense of security that they crave. They are looking to Government—of whichever colour—to do something about it.
Although the Bill takes many good steps forward in addressing the uncertainty of old age, it does not go far enough. It certainly does not take the steps that Conservatives would: it does nothing to address the decline of the savings culture; it does nothing to address the collapse in the household savings ratio; it certainly does not provide a guarantee. I saw pictures on the news last week of workers celebrating as if all their problems were over. I believe that in a few months' or years' time, that will seem precipitate, because they will work out how little they have benefited. There is a real danger that in over-egging the provisions, the Government could send out the wrong signal.
There is a huge amount of work to do, but it would be churlish to end other than by saying that we welcome the steps forward taken by the Bill. There is a degree of consensus across the House, but Conservative Members want to do a great deal more.
§ Vera Baird
For all the reasons set out by my hon. Friends, I welcome the Bill. At this time of night, I am not going to repeat what has already been said, especially when the Secretary of State is buying the drinks. At least I hope that he is, but he is frowning now.
The Bill takes another step in the Government's march to improve pensions. The Committee stage was pleasant and a good learning experience for many of us, very much including me. The Minister for Pensions 1186 was knowledgeable and well briefed—a bipartisan compliment, because one cannot be well briefed without an excellent team of advisers, which we clearly had.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) got it in the neck many times for reading other people's briefings, but to be fair, he always admitted that he was doing so and never pretended otherwise. His contributions were most welcome. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) missed the references to him made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). He will read them with interest inHansard tomorrow. He is a bit of a worrier, but he is undoubtedly extremely knowledgeable. His contributions were also super.
I was pleased to raise, within the ambit of debating the Bill, the real problems that women still face in connection with pensions. Women's organisations such as Fawcett, as well as bodies like the Equal Opportunities Commission and many others, were very pleased when my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions agreed to produce a report on women and pensions. His offer did not have to be wrenched out of him, because he made it very willingly.
Indeed, the result is rather better than I had tried to achieve with my new clause. I had hoped only to get a report every year after the Bill had been introduced. If my new clause had been accepted, it would have been placed in a part of the Bill that need not have been brought into force by any particular date. By contrast, my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions has made a clear undertaking to produce a report on women and pensions next year.
That is an essential minimum. The Bill's enhanced security and regulation with respect to pensions will benefit everybody, but it contains nothing that directly addresses the pension problems faced by women.
I readily accept that the Bill is not like Santa Claus' sack, containing a present for everyone. However, 64 per cent. of pensioners are women, who receive on average only 57 per cent. of the income enjoyed by the average male pensioner. It is imperative that we put an end to that situation soon, and that we ensure that presents—if that is the right word—are given to women pensioners.
I and others will therefore continue to press every week for progress in respect of women's pensions. In that way, I hope to ensure that the first report from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is a good one. However, I have got used to the team with whom I served in Standing Committee, and I expect that I will serve with them again. When I do, I hope that it will be to consider the women's pensions Bill.
§ Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)
I welcomed the Bill on Second Reading, when I pointed out that it had one glaring omission. I tried to speak in yesterday's debate on new clause 34, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and I were the only two hon. Members not to be called before the debate ended. I was therefore keen to contribute today, as I want to thank the Government for listening to the argument put forward on Second Reading by me and many others—that the Bill offered nothing for people who would not be covered by the new pension protection provisions.
1187 That omission was a clear injustice, as people would not be covered when the company for which they worked or the pension scheme to which they belonged had been declared insolvent. I accepted the Government's argument that the PPF could not be made retrospective, but I said on Second Reading that I hoped that the Government would come up with something to put matters right. I was not quite sure what that something would be, but I am delighted that the assistance scheme that the Government came up with is to be put in place.
Having constituents who are faced with a problem really helps to concentrate one's mind. The problem with pensions makes it clear why Members of Parliament should represent a distinct constituency. The phrase "restored the link" has a different resonance for my hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton, South and for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson). They think that it refers to restoring the link for MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, for which they have argued very forcefully throughout the passage through the House of the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill.
The changes that have been made to the Bill show that constituents can exert political pressure on their Member of Parliament to take up their case with Ministers. As many hon. Members have noted, that process works. In my case, pressure was brought to bear by members of the pension scheme run by the Richards textile company which, before it went into insolvency, used to be based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran).
Those pension scheme members live all over Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland. It was their plight that alerted me to the problem that the Bill addresses by setting up the PPF.
Much of what is in the Bill, especially the PPF, would not have been necessary if it had not been for the failures of the Pensions Act 1995. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) praised the work of Dr. Ros Altmann, and she did a lot of work in persuading the Government that the pensioners in question should be looked after, but she also laid the blame for the problems that we now face with insolvent pension funds at the door of the 1995 Act. I was openmouthed with amazement at the audacity of the Leader of the Opposition in taking credit for the solution to a problem caused by legislation passed by the Government of whom he was a member.
This Government have made a habit of picking up the pieces of the failed legislation of the previous Government or setting right problems that they failed to address. We all know about the compensation scheme for miners, but there is another scheme, which has not had the same airing in the House but is very important for my constituents, and it provides compensation for those who were made redundant as a result of the cod wars. Many of my constituents who lost their jobs as fishermen at the time of the cod war have received compensation. Indeed, the total is some 500 across the north-east of Scotland; that is another example of the Government making right something that the previous Government refused to do.
1188 Several hon. Members have mentioned restoring the link. I would not wish the hon. Member for Eastbourne to be accused of misleading the House, but in a reply to a query by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) as to whether any of the hon. Gentleman's constituents would lose out as a result of the Opposition's policy on restoring the link and the freezing of pension credit, he replied that they would not. Well, perhaps they would not, in strict terms, because under the Opposition's policy the pension credit would be frozen. However, what is often forgotten in the argument about restoring the link is that not all pensioners qualify for the national state pension. Some 1.5 million pensioners have only a partial contributions record and therefore receive a part of the pension or do not qualify at all. Restoring the link would do nothing for those poorest of pensioners. If the Opposition froze the pension credit, it would mean that that group of people—and those who receive only the basic state pension and nothing else—would have their income frozen for many years into the future. In other words, they would have no increases in income, whether the pension was linked to inflation or earnings. For those who made no contributions and therefore had no state pension, their income would never go up beyond the present level of the pension credit, if the hon. Gentleman had his way and the pension credit was left to wither on the vine. It is disingenuous to argue that restoring the link will help the poorest pensioners, because it would not.
The Bill is to be welcomed. It has many good aspects that have been well debated this afternoon. I add my congratulations to the Government on filling the glaring hole in the original Bill, and I hope that it comes out of the other place an even stronger Bill.
§ Mr. George Osborne
I thought that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) was a little ungenerous. To say that it was all the fault of the 1995 Act when that Act was introduced to deal with the fraud of a Labour MP, Robert Maxwell, and had the support—led by the previous Member for Glasgow, Anniesland—of the then Labour Opposition, is for the hon. Lady to forget her history.
In general, the debate has been good. My job is to wind it up, so I have to utter the usual pleasantries—as everyone else has done. As the person in the parliamentary Conservative party who is, I hope, furthest from my pension, I am not sure why I was put on the Bill's Committee, but I have enjoyed being understudy to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) who, with my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), knows a hell of a lot more than I do about pensions—I hope you will excuse my language Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne conducted proceedings in a relaxed and informal style, only occasionally rising to the sedentary interventions of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns).
I have lost count of the number of Ministers I currently shadow—about five or six—but the Minister for Pensions and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), are among my favourites. I congratulate 1189 the Under-Secretary as I think this is his first Bill as a Minister. He did extremely well. The Minister for Pensions managed to get a large number of song titles into his speeches in Committee. If he was doing it for a bet, he must have won.
I pay tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and the hon. Members for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) and for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) who played an active role in Committee. Normally, it is traditional for Government Back Benchers to sit in Committees without taking part, but those three certainly participated and I congratulate them.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend, or rather the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan)—he was a friend during some of our Committee tactics. It is not generally known that the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde and I share a woman. Her name is Linda Sanchez and she is a Congresswoman. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), may be interested to learn that she was the first sister of a Congresswoman to be elected to Congress. The hon. Gentlemen and I met her in Boston and, through sitting around the bar talking to her about American politics, got to know each other, so it has been a pleasure to serve on the Committee with them.
Someone should write a book about what the hon. Member for Cardiff, West has done over the past year or two. He ran a textbook Government Back Bencher campaign, and did not wholly destroy his prospects of ministerial promotion in the process, which is quite a feat.
At the beginning of the debate, the Secretary of State said that the Bill would transform pension security. That is certainly needed, given the halving of the savings ratio and the kind of things that the chairman of Aviva said earlier this week. InThe Financial Times, he said:We will have a generation of elderly people coming soon who will have a hard time to live above the poverty line. No one should be proud or pleased with that scenario.Aviva is the largest insurer in this country and is seeing faster rates of savings growth in many continental European markets than in the UK. A report from JP Morgan Fleming found that the number of defined benefit schemes that had closed or been restricted to new staff had doubled over two years.
Will the Bill transform pension security? It would be churlish not to concede that the PPF is an important step forward in providing that security. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne asked Important questions in Committee and also—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon)—in the debate about how the risk-based levy is to work and how moral hazard will be dealt with. Those quest ions need answers. The Government—whichever Government are in power—will have to play catch-up to close loopholes in the legislation as they emerge.
There were also questions about what kind of guarantee is behind the PPF. The Minister for Pensions was careful not to give an answer— as indeed was my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. I suspect that there is a political guarantee: if the whole PPF goes bust, the Government in power at the time will be in a difficult position if they do not support it.
1190 Throughout our deliberations, the elephant in the room was the 60,000 pensioners who had lost all or part of their pension. The elephant emerged at the last moment on Report. It was extraordinary that the Secretary of State gave over half his speech to that great thing, which was only introduced at the very last moment.
Perhaps if such compensation had been proposed earlier, we could have properly gone through some of the detailed issues raised, not just by Opposition Members such as my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) and for Sevenoaks, but by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and, indeed, the hon. Member for Hamilton, South, who raised legitimate questions about the scope of the compensation and whether a group of very aggrieved people will receive no assistance having been given, if they watched the news during the past few days, some hope and an impression that they would do so. Time will tell.
I welcome a couple of other things in the Bill. Of course, I welcome the acceptance of new clause 23. Unfortunately, I was not in the Chamber to debate that yesterday, but it was kindly called the Tatton amendment, although it was proposed by an outside organisation and accepted by the Government. I also welcome the assurances that the Minister for Pensions gave yesterday about the amendments that we moved on the involvement of pensioner members in respect of member-nominated trustees. He said that the Government would take a close look at that issue and possibly table an amendment in another place. That would be good news to the Occupational Pensioners Alliance, and I hope that the Minister can live up to his promise.
I should note in passing that the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) made an important contribution to the debate when he referred to the need for trustees to have sufficient knowledge and training to discharge the important responsibilities that we place on them.
Pension provision has been undermined not only by the security issue, but by the regulatory burden and costs on schemes that have accumulated under successive pensions legislation. I fear that the Bill will add to that burden, rather than reduce it, despite what the Government's rather optimistic regulatory impact assessment says. The new pensions regulator will cost 25 per cent. more than the previous one, and preparing the statement of funding principles will cost more than £16 million more than producing the minimum funding requirement, even according to the Government's estimates.
We will find out whether the statement of funding principles turns out to be the benchmark. There is certainly a view in the pensions industry that the basis for setting the PPF risk-based premium will, in effect, become the new minimum funding requirement because a well-run pension scheme will not want to pay a risk-based levy. Over time, we will discover whether that is the case. Of course, there is the cost of the PPF levy itself.
Additional costs will be placed on the industry, so despite what the Government say in their regulatory impact assessment, it is perhaps not surprising that the 1191 Association of Consulting Actuaries found, after conducting a survey in advance of the debate on Third Reading, thata majority of firms feel thatthe Billwill decrease occupational pension scheme coverage. Fewer than 1 in 10 firms feel that the measures will improve pension coverage. Close to 9 out of 10 firms say that the Bill's measures will either add to costs … or make no difference … as against the Government's claims that there will be £130 million savings.That is what the industry says; it has certainly been our fear, and we have tried to make that clear as the Bill has been considered in Committee, on Report and now on Third Reading. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and the test will be whether more people save for their retirement. Will the closure of occupational schemes slow down, halt and perhaps even reverse? As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said, will confidence in pensions be restored? We will see.
§ Malcolm Wicks
This has been a good debate, genuinely well informed and authoritative—a proper Third Reading debate. The wide range of contributions has revealed a fair degree of consensus on what we are trying to achieve—a consensus that I hope another place will note.
We have heard contributions from all over the United Kingdom, from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Although I cannot comment on all the points made during the debate, we heard good speeches from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). Last night, in private—because it was during Report stage—I gave the hon. Gentleman gentle advice about not being too cynical. I thought that the constructive tone of his remarks today showed that he had taken my advice, for which I thank him. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made an important contribution, as did the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to reassure him that an investor in a company who has not been involved in any wrongdoing in relation to pensions will not be penalised.
We also heard important contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), whom I thank for his generosity. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) helped to make this a United Kingdom occasion, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson). The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) also spoke, as did the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). I hope that I have left no one out—I want this to be a proper safety net.
§ Malcolm Wicks
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my list of "thank yous". We have heard lots of "thank yous" 1192 today, which is important, because we have had help from many people. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members present, especially those who have contributed to the debate, the members of the Standing Committee and our two able Chairmen. I have been aided by an excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns). I cannot believe that he would ever make a sedentary comment, but I believe that yesterday, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you commented that traditionally PPSs are silent. As a former Minister for Lifelong Learning, I shall find an appropriate course on which to send my hon. Friend, to teach him that silence and humility that will make him an even more excellent PPS. He has many duties: at one stage, I wished him to say something to Opposition colleagues on the Standing Committee, and he went across, much to the amusement of his Labour peers. Since it doubled the number of Members on the Tory Benches, I thought that there was an important parliamentary purpose in doing so.
Not merely because I was prompted to do so, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has given us invaluable advice during the passage of the Bill. As I said yesterday, not only is the Bill the parent of the pension protection fund, but, because of my right hon. Friend's drive over many months, it contains the assistance scheme that has so dominated our debate, both in the past and today. I thank also the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond). He and I have known each other for many years. This is the first Bill that he has taken through Standing Committee, and I hope that the experience has not put him off, as it should not be his last. One day this week, he appeared before a Select Committee in the morning, put in a full day's debate on the Report stage of the Bill, then, because our Department covers work as well as pensions, he responded to the Adjournment debate. He is a role model for us all.
We should thank all those who work behind the scenes, but I thank my officials in particular. Last week, the hon. Member for Eastbourne said that when I heard a certain piece of news there must have been expletives in the air. Perhaps too primly, I replied that I do not go in for expletives, and I am sure that my officials will testify to the fact that I approach my task with even temper and good humour most of the time—occasionally, anyway. I would like to thank them, parliamentary counsel and everyone else.
I would like to take a moment to reflect on the journey the Bill has made through this House. Many hon. Members are about to make other journeys, so I will not detain the House too long. Three months ago, we introduced a Bill that, among other measures, made provision for a pension protection fund and a pensions regulator, which will significantly increase the protection offered to pension scheme members. We explained that the pensions regulator will be flexible and proactive and will focus on tackling the risks to members' benefits. while enabling well-administered and secure schemes to continue without unnecessary burden. We explained that the PPF will mean that, for the first time ever, individuals in defined benefit schemes, usually known as final salary schemes, based in the United Kingdom can rest assured that they will 1193 always receive a meaningful pension, even if their company goes bust and leaves the pension scheme underfunded.
We explained that over 10 million members—a modest estimate—of defined benefit schemes could benefit from the security and peace of mind afforded by the pension protection fund. In addition to those 10 million people, we must remember their families, who also rely on that security. However, Mr. Speaker, you will remember that Opposition Members declined to give the Bill a Second Reading. We also wish to remind them that, if my history is right, they declined to give a Second Reading to the Bill that set up the national health service.
§ Gregory Barker
I hate to interrupt the flow of the Minister's speech but, to be fair and for the record, does he not recall that the Opposition voted for a reasoned amendment, and did not simply decline to give the Bill a Second Reading? At this late hour, I would hate him to misrepresent the facts.
§ Malcolm Wicks
I am not a legal expert, but I have enough education to know the meaning of the phrase "decline to give the Bill a Second Reading".
In Committee, Members from all parties worked hard to scrutinise the Bill, including Opposition Members, who played a full and proper part in the proceedings. There was a highly informed and useful debate in Committee—it was not just a rubber-stamping exercise, and we discussed many issues. For example, we undertook to consider the proposal to remove the limited price index from defined contribution schemes when people are choosing an annuity. The new ombudsman may refer any question of law arising for determination in connection with cases to the High Court or, in Scotland, to the Court of Session. Pensioners as well as active members should be involved in the selection process for member-nominated trustees, so we have made a number of changes following scrutiny of the Bill in Committee.
On Report, we introduced a requirement on employers to consult their employees, trade unions or other representatives before making significant changes to pension schemes. In the early stages, however, we faced one overriding challenge—the issue of people who had already lost their pension and for whom the PPF has come too late. We were determined to do all that we could, but it was essential that we did not commit ourselves to writing a blank cheque. We were not willing to commit to a solution until we knew more about the scale and nature of the problem. While Government cannot stand behind private agreements—they cannot nationalise financial risk—and do not accept legal liability, we recognise that that group deserves Government help. It is the right thing to do and will greatly increase confidence in pensions.
We have therefore started a process to set up a financial assistance scheme with £400 million of public money spread over 20 years. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) banged his fists on the Dispatch Box at one stage, and demanded an end to claims of "No false hope". Following careful assessment, the assistance plan has now been announced and will bring true hope and, ultimately, true help for those who have lost out and suffered such a great injustice.
1194 Members of the House have an opportunity this evening—I hope we will all make use of the opportunity—to support an extremely important Bill. I contrast what we are proposing with the position of the Opposition earlier. The hon. Member for Eastbourne was very good in Committee. He honed the art of quoting other people's views—many late nights with a fountain pen. Today the hon. Gentleman and his colleague the hon. Member for Tatton quoted from the Association of Consulting Actuaries report. I regret to say, and I am sure this was simply because of the lateness of the hour, they did not quote it in full. I shall quote the views from the survey on the pension protection fund:Encouragingly for the Government, a clear majority of firms offering defined benefit schemes are in favour of the proposed Pension Protection Fund (PPF), one of its key new proposals in thePensions Bill. The importance of offering greater security to defined benefits scheme members was mentioned by many firms. Support for the PPF has grown since the publication of thePensions Bill.We did not hear that.
Although we listen with great care to detailed points from those on the Opposition Benches, we will never forget that it was a Conservative Government who presided over pensions mis-selling on a massive scale. They did not provide any money to sort it out. Nearly 2 million cases have had to be reviewed and it has taken £12 billion in pension industry money to resolve. People in the industry are still working to clear up the mess. We will remember that.
It is interesting that the hon. Member for Eastbourne had to tell us that he could not commit his party to supporting the PPF, even at this stage. I hope the Opposition will nevertheless support the Bill this evening.
With the new assistance plan, as with many other successes, many people are claiming parentage. We had an unlikely candidate, the Leader of the Opposition, who apparently came in late, mentioned it once or twice at Prime Minister's questions and is now the proud parent of the assisted pensions scheme. Success has many fathers, but there is no Tory DNA in the new assistance plan.
Although I am being gentle with the hon. Member for Northavon today, I remind him of his cynicism when he said of the ASW and other workers on 12 January thatthe Government will do precisely nothing, and take many months to do it …Would it not have been more honest and generated less false hope to have told them that at the start?"— [Official Report, 12 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 513.]Those were the words of the Liberal Democrat spokesman. We have seen the plan from the Labour Government.
Finally, I am proud that it is a Labour Government who are introducing the Pensions Bill. Sometimes the term "social security" is used as technical benefit jargon, but "social security" has a meaning in the English language. It is about providing individuals and their families with a real sense of financial security. The pension protection fund will one day be regarded by historians as one of the proudest achievements of this Labour Government, because it brings a real sense of assurance and security to 10 million scheme members and their families. It is vital. Social security is also the right description of the assistance scheme that will be developed in the months to come. 1195 In Committee there were one or two musical references. There was a rather serious one yesterday when my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) mentioned the great Woody Guthrie, in the context of a song saying that one could rob people with a pen. Woody Guthrie is also known for the song, "This Land is Your Land". We have been speaking about the people's pensions, and we will protect them.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.