HL Deb 13 July 1999 vol 604 cc177-244

3.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 51 [Entitlement to Category B retirement pension by reference to new allowances]:

Lord Rix moved Amendment No. 91A:

Page 58, line 25, at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (7A),").

The noble Lord said: Although this is already on record, I should declare that personal interest which all of us with spouses have, especially if our mortality catches up with us after April next year.

I do not want to detain Members of the Committee on matters on which other noble Lords and the Minister have spoken so eloquently. I shall attempt to be brief in the commonly accepted sense of that term and not as in Chaucer' s Prologue.

In brief, a previous administration used the Social Security Act 1986 to halve the earnings related to the inheritance of spouses with effect from April 2000. That change is now in Section 50(5) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 and is reflected in Clause 51(7) of the Bill which we are now debating. The Minister has inherited that poisoned chalice but she and her colleagues have not so far been minded to disown it. What the noble Baroness and her colleagues in another place have done is acknowledge that the suppression of information about the loss of accrued rights under the 1986 Act has created injustices which will have to be addressed through some form of compensation for some people.

My amendment—I recognise its drafting limitations—seeks to require regulations to be made, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Those regulations would, I envisage, give full inherited pension rights to the spouses of those whose contributions span the whole period from 1978 to 1986 before the 1986 legislation came into being to diminish those rights. Using the formula of which I have notified the Minister, they would give a lesser inheritance to the spouses of those who contributed after 1986 during the period when the law had changed, but that change in the law had not been notified to those affected by it.

I propose this approach because I do not want to complicate an already complicated clause and because I am wedded to the principle of justice but flexible as to the detail of what should be done to deliver justice. My approach has, I believe, the potential to secure justice without all the costs of a flood of individual compensation cases.

It behoves lesser mortals to take shelter when the Titans are hurling rocks. I am aware that Lady Sally Greengross of Age Concern has put to the department a legal opinion which challenges the legal opinion quoted by Ministers that the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights allow the inheritance rights of spouses to be reduced. It may well be that this part of the Bill—though not only this part—will have to be reconsidered. I do not want this debate in any way to prejudice proceedings. I am anxious to know whether the Minister is in a position to amend what she said about the legal position at Second Reading.

In conclusion, I should like to make three points which I think are hard to controvert. First, the Government have—and have acknowledged having—a problem; albeit not one initially of their own making. The Government have accepted that money will have to be spent on resolving that problem. Secondly, it really is not acceptable to take away pension rights already contracted for and paid for. No occupational pension scheme would be allowed to act in this way, as we are now aware with the case at present going through the courts. Thirdly, it is not acceptable to take away future rights unless those affected have been notified and have had the opportunity to seek to make alternative arrangements. In this case, not only were people not told; they were assured that their spouses' rights were intact.

I am offering the Government a lifeline. I would go on to say that I stand astounded at my own moderation, were it not that readers of Macaulay might recall that when Warren Hastings made that comment he was refusing to apologise for having appropriated rather large sums of money. In this case, if I may say so, the Government seem to have appropriated rather large sums of contributors' money. I hope that the Minister will be able to express her gratitude for my rescue package and take that which is offered in a spirit of goodwill and with cheated contributors and disappointed surviving spouses particularly in mind. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Higgins

There were originally three amendments on the Marshalled List concerned with the issue which the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has drawn to our attention. I am sure that the Committee will be grateful for the elegant way in which he put forward the arguments.

We debated this matter last Tuesday, 6th July (col. 141). I moved an amendment designed to deal, in part, with the problem which we now face, by suggesting that the arrangements should not go forward in the Bill until such time as the Government had put forward their proposals regarding compensation for those who were not informed of the true situation as regards the reduction of widows benefits.

It is important to distinguish between the two separate issues raised by the noble Lord. I refer to the reduction by or to 50 per cent of the widows' pension, enacted as long ago as 1986, and to the subsequent problems which have arisen because individuals were misinformed as to the fact that that was the state of the law, or at least appeared to be.

As regards the first matter, there is a significant difference between the amendment tabled by the noble Lord and that which I moved the other day. I was concerned with the problem of misinformation; he is concerned, more fundamentally, with the question of the reduction in widows' pension in the first instance. In 1986 proposals were made which stated that pensions would not be reduced immediately but after a period of 14 years. Time has moved on and that period has virtually expired. The present proposals are that the pensions will be reduced as from April next year.

As I have mentioned, there is a third amendment on the Marshalled List, tabled in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, which goes still further. It seeks to reverse the situation created in 1986. We need to clarify the position with regard to all these matters. No doubt the Minister will reply to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, as regards the underlying situation of the reduction in pension and, in particular, to the points he raised concerning the European Convention on Human Rights. Although that was not part of our domestic law in 1986, it is now. I do not wish to elaborate on that side of matters. I want to concentrate on the question of misinformation.

I pointed out the other day, and I repeat now, that it seems to me that this is not a partisan issue. Whatever one may think about the basic question of the reduction, I have looked back on the debate and, surprisingly, there seemed to be remarkably little opposition, in some ways, at the time. However, there were proposals for transitional arrangements, and so on.

Despite the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the other night regarding the effect of SERPS and the change which was made, as I understand it the Government do not propose to alter the basic situation with regard to the reduction of the pension, although the noble Lord Rix is suggesting, as indeed are the Liberal Democrat Benches, that that should be so.

However, the problem arises from a tactical point of view, if I may put it in that way, as to what should be done about the misinformation. Clearly, this happened under the previous Government and under this Government in a quite extraordinary way. The original proposals for informing people of what would happen after the lapse of 14 years from 1986 did not take place. We run into difficult problems of parliamentary accountability.

The traditional view is that Ministers are accountable, both those of the previous government and the present Government. It is also important to consider the relationship between Ministers and officials. We need to consider the position of the officials involved in this affair. In the light of the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee of some years ago, which I looked up, although there were subtle distinctions made between the actions of officials on the one hand and the conduct of officials on the other, nonetheless, the general doctrine was agreed that if something had gone wrong, Ministers should look into the matter and at least assure the House that something had been done by way of disciplinary procedures.

Perhaps the Minister could clarify that situation for us this afternoon. Obviously there are additional complications, given the change of government in the meantime and the problems of referring back to papers of the previous government. However, clearly the problem arises from the fact that what Ministers said would be done did not take place. This is an important issue.

The other important issue concerns people being misinformed and, as a result, not making provision for their pensions. What evidence will the Government use to establish whether a particular individual has been misinformed or not? I refer, for instance, to phone calls—the noble Lord, Lord Rix, referred to the fact that he had some experience of that—or to correspondence, which, presumably, is more likely to be on the record. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us the situation as regards such evidence as may be produced.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman is considering whether there has been maladministration and he said in a press release that he will report before the change in pension payments is made. That is to happen, once and for all, on a specific date and I do not believe that that is satisfactory. We should be clear about what will happen well in advance of that date and before the legislation is passed. Perhaps the noble Baroness can give us some idea of the timetable.

In the various exchanges across the Floor of the House at Question Time, the noble Baroness pointed out—some months ago now—that she was taking legal advice about the Government's liabilities in the circumstances that have been described by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, regarding misinformation. It is important that we have some idea of the nature of that legal advice. I hope that the Minister will tell us what advice she has received. She must know what it is by now and, if she is unable to reveal it, perhaps the Law Officers should come before us and explain the true situation.

We are unclear about what the Government have in mind by way of compensation. The Minister of State in another place has made it absolutely clear that the Government will ensure—that is the word he used—that those who have incurred loss as a result of being wrongly informed about the true situation will not suffer. That is a pretty comprehensive statement. However, we are not the least bit clear about what the Government propose. We do not know whether they favour the proposal advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, in his amendment, whether they will defer the change, or introduce compensation in the form of cash or whatever.

The Government are paying compensation for a whole range of things, not least as a result of the failure of the Department of Social Security's computer. These are important issues, and we hope that the Minister will spell out in more detail than has been provided so far what the Government intend to do. They have had sufficient time to consider the matter. We should be in a position to hear this afternoon what the Government propose to do about compensation and the more fundamental issue of their attitude to the noble Lord's amendment.

Earl Russell

I received this morning a vigorously expressed letter from a constituent of my honourable friend Mr Rendell. After expressing his gratitude to my honourable friend for the work that he has done on this issue—that praise was deserved—he pointed out that he does not have sufficient earning years left to be able to put right the mischief caused by this misadventure. That constituent feels strongly that he has been deprived the opportunity to make adequate provision for his spouse. He has hit the nail on the head.

Fortunately, we have an agreed body of facts. There has been misinformation under both governments. We on these Benches will not attempt to turn inferior opportunity into a claim of superior virtue. Whatever the causes may be, they are fairly deep-seated and institutional and must not be blamed on the faults of any one particular party. Therefore, I hope that, when the Minister replies, she will not suffer from an attack of the pot and kettle disease. We have a problem and we are all responsible for trying to find a solution.

We have tabled our own amendment on this point that is slightly more far reaching than that of the noble Lord, Lord Rix. However, as I am sure the Minister is about to remind the Committee, our proposal is a good deal more expensive. We naturally prefer our amendment, but, were the Minister to be minded to accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, we will remember that the principle that half a loaf is better than no bread is an extremely good political principle. In any event, i think that the noble Lord's amendment provides a good deal more than half a loaf.

The noble Lord referred to an opinion that he has obtained through Age Concern about the implications of the European Convention on Human Rights. That opinion is quite far reaching because it suggests that the Government do not have the option of doing nothing. If they do not take action in response to parliamentary pressure—as any responsible government should—they will find that they are forced to do so by international judicial action.

The first point of the opinion is that the entitlement to SERPS constitutes possession within the meaning of Article 1 of the first protocol. I do not think that Ministers are in a position to object to that because the European Commission has already ruled on the matter in another case.

The second question is whether the entitlement to the spouse could be seen as a possession of the contributor. We should note that that concept of possession arises from the contributory principle: an entitlement exists because contributions have been made. The Commission of the European Court of Human Rights has also ruled that, because contributions have been made, an entitlement to the spouse as well as to the contributor arises.

The only further question that must be decided is whether the change has a legal basis and has been made sufficiently accessible. We are in no doubt that the change has a legal basis: it is definitely intra vires for an Act of Parliament to do what this legislation will do. However, it is equally clear that the change has not been made sufficiently accessible. I cannot imagine that any Minister—least of all one who pays attention to evidence, and this Minister is famous for that—could possibly be in a position to deny that. If the change has not been made sufficiently accessible, compensation is payable.

The rule is a good one: settle now or pay later. I hope that the Minister will choose the first option.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Like Amendment No. 73A, which we discussed a week ago, these amendments relate to the provisions for reducing the value of inherited SERPS. We discussed this matter fully towards the end of the last Committee day, and the amendments were grouped originally because they deal with the same issue. However, your Lordships have chosen to ungroup the amendments, so I hope that I will be forgiven if, as a result, I say the same thing three times. The situation has not advanced since the previous Committee day and the last amendment that we discussed on that occasion. I must admit that I think most of the speeches made today were virtually the same as those delivered on the previous occasion. So I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I cannot advance the argument much further.

Earl Russell

I hope that the Minister will exempt me from that comment. I relied in my speech on an opinion that I had not even read the last time that we discussed this matter.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

As always, I am happy to extend an exemption to the noble Lord.

The intention of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is to phase in the reduction over a period of time. His formula is complex and is intended to compensate fully those who paid employee contributions between 1978 and 1986 and to compensate partially those who paid contributions from 1986 onwards.

All noble Lords—including the noble Lord, Lord Higgins—accept that the changes to inherited SERPS were not handled well. The Government and I are certainly aware that many people are very concerned—and rightly so—about the reduction and the misleading information that some have received. We are considering that issue very seriously. However, as I said when we discussed the previous amendment, the costs of either delaying or phasing in the change are substantial and could run into many billions of pounds. To reverse the change or to introduce an open ended compensation scheme would have the same early effect, but would entail a bill for expenditure in the future that would continue to increase. We are considering the matter. We shall make an announcement in due course.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, raised the point in relation to the nature of the legal advice he took—a point extended by the noble Earl, Lord Russell—and asked whether I was in a position to comment further on what I said in regard to the previous amendment. There is a strong argument that spouses' pensions are not possessions under Article 1 because they are based on contributions paid by another person. In addition, Article 1 gives governments the right to reassess needs in the light of changing social policy. On that argument, the reduction in SERPS strikes the necessary balance between the rights of spouses and the broader public interest. We are therefore acting in accordance with our legal obligations under the convention.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, raised a question relating to officials. As he knows, this Government, perfectly properly, do not have access to the papers of a previous government. Therefore, we simply cannot tell what happened. He and his previous fellow incumbents—perhaps his noble friend Lord Lamont—may be able to help with regard to what was happening at the time if they have access to their private papers. The ombudsman may be able to obtain access to those papers, in which case the situation will be brought to light and that will be helpful. We cannot tell what happened, as the noble Lord well knows; but the ombudsman may be able to do so.

Finally, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that all governments were equally to blame for this situation. I refuse to accept that. I am not trying to deal with this in a partisan way, but there is a difference between a government who introduced a measure and therefore in my view have a moral responsibility for diffusing correct information about it—and to do so for the following 10 years—and a government who inherited the situation and are trying to address it.

Earl Russell

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I can clarify the issue. I did not attempt to apportion shares of responsibility. I said that we are all responsible to the extent of our opportunities.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

In that sense, that would by definition he true of any situation in which anyone was placed. There is always truth in tautology and we heard that one today.

I should like to he more helpful to the Committee because the Committee knows that I like to share information as and when I have it. But I cannot advance beyond the situation in the previous amendment. It is an extremely complicated matter. We do not have all the information to which the ombudsman may have access. The financial implications are huge. We are considering the position and as soon as I am able to give the Committee any more guidance, I shall be happy to do so.

Lord Rix

Before the Minister sits down, does she recognise that my amendment provides for the Secretary of State to introduce regulations which can be reflected after the ombudsman makes his findings clear? There is no compulsion in the amendment with regard to the amount of compensation, when it should be paid and so forth; it simply follows the fact that in another place it has been clearly stated on several occasions that compensation is to be paid. Amendment No. 91A gives the Secretary of State the right to pay that compensation by affirmative resolution, but the amount of the compensation can be decided at some time after the ombudsman's findings or after—although one hopes that it does not go so far because it would cause many years' delay—the decision of the Court of Human Rights.

Does not the Minister recognise that the amendment is a helping hand rather than imposing a demand upon the Government and the Secretary of State to provide X amount of compensation for X number of people?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is seeking to be helpful in this respect. If the Secretary of State decides that the appropriate way forward is compensation, I do not doubt that he will have to follow the path outlined by the noble Lord. He is absolutely right. There may be other ways of dealing with compensation but a not-unacceptable or unusual one would be to lay regulations which would allow the Secretary of State just the freedom for interpretation in the action the noble Lord describes. But there are perhaps other ways of dealing with this.

Other Members of the Committee suggested deferring the introduction of the change. So until we know what the Government believe to be the right way forward, balancing fairness to those who have been hurt by this change with the wider considerations of the finite budget and other equally pressing needs, then and only then will the Secretary of State know whether he wishes to follow the path suggested by the noble Lord or a different one.

Lord Rix

Before the Minister sits down perhaps I may ask a further question. Can she clarify the statement made in another place by the Minister, Stephen Timms, that compensation will probably he payable to those who make telephone calls to the Benefits Agency? Clearly if that is so, it will take many years to unravel who did and who did not make phone calls; how it will be proved and so forth. A number of people have been in correspondence with the Benefits Agency, but many thousands, of whom I am one, conducted their inquiries through the telephone.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The noble Lord is correct, but it is even more complicated. A person may simply have made an inquiry at the counter and no record was kept; that might be considered to be appropriate evidence. I cannot help the Committee any further on this until the Government determine what path, if any, they propose to take in response to this situation. Then, as soon as I can, I shall share that information with the Committee and it will no doubt be open for debate. But we are not there yet.

Lord Higgins

That is a rather strange statement. Of course until the Government decide what to do we cannot move forward, but we are seeking to urge the Government to make such a decision; otherwise the argument becomes completely circular.

We cannot accept what the noble Baroness said about the grouping of the amendments. It is true that the same issue underlies all three, but each one deals with the problem in a completely different way. My amendment merely sought to urge the Government to make a decision and imposed a sanction if they did not. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, would cost an uncertain amount; the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, to which we shall come shortly, would probably cost around £5.5 billion. Therefore, it is strange to say that they are all the same amendment.

Perhaps I may pursue the point made with regard to officials. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that there is a problem in looking back at the papers of the previous government. The absolutely watertight convention is that one government do not look at their predecessor's papers. That is right. We therefore have a problem in finding out what was happening in 1986 or thereabouts. I hope that the ombudsman can illuminate that matter.

It is also the case that, under the present Government, officials continued, right up to April, to misinform people. While Ministers are accountable, there is also a responsibility on them—as the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee made clear and it is now accepted doctrine—to look into the matter and assure Members of the Committee that appropriate action has been taken in relation to the individuals concerned. That does not necessarily mean producing the individuals in the light of day, but at least reassuring us; that something has been done; otherwise the kind of inaction which took place under both governments is unlikely to be corrected.

In one sense the noble Baroness helpfully spelt out the Government's attitude to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, in relation to the legal arguments. Whether one view or the other is correct remains to be seen. But she did not deal with the question, when the legal issue originally arose, of the position with regard to the misinformation. Having taken legal advice, do the Government now take the view that they do or do not have a legal liability with regard to the individuals who, as a result of being misinformed, did not take action which they would otherwise have taken and who suffered as a result? One must press the Government. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rix, we have tried to be helpful as regards individuals who do not know where they stand. Time is running out. As the noble Earl has pointed out, the longer the matter is unresolved the less chance there is for people to make adjustments.

Given the very clear undertaking in another place by the Minister of State that the Government will ensure that those who have been misinformed do not suffer, we should at least have some idea what form of compensation they have in mind. So far we have had no indication at all other than the Government saying that they cannot say what the answer will be until they have made a decision. We need to have a decision now and not a policy of procrastination.

4 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

I listened attentively to what the Minister had to say hoping that the rumour that she was about to announce some substantial concession was true. But obviously it is not because all we have been given is an undated promissory note. The ombudsman is to report, but when? Surely the Minister knows.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I do not know.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

The Minister does not know. Is there no time limit set to the ombudsman's deliberations?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My noble friend has much greater experience than I have. She knows that the ombudsman is independent of the Government and determines his own timetable.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Yes, of course. But is it going to be this year, next year, some time or never that we shall get a report that will compel the Government to make some compensatory payments to these people? The Government have a very serious share of the liability. I was thinking over how we introduced the widows' pension provision way back in the 1974 government. We did that by analysing the causes of poverty and seeking to deal with them. We found that one of the main causes was a breadwinner on a low income with a large family and hence child benefit. I congratulate the Government in not having had second thoughts about that. We found that the other great pocket of poverty existed among elderly widows. So we devised the most generous provision for widows yet known in our social security system. As we all know, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, reversed that. Mr. Tony Blair's Government was in no hurry to repudiate this total change of Labour policy because he believed in it. That is the truth. That is why the Government were not anxious to publicise the change of what had been Labour's traditional policy. We had a government who said that they were going to be a caring government and do this or that, but they failed for a substantial period of time to rectify the lack of information which the predecessor government had provided. So the Government have a liability at the very least to compensate those who, as many people have pointed out, are astonished to find that widows will be inadequately provided for.

As usual, the Minister said that it would cost billions. If so, does that not mean that they are robbing the widows of billions? Is not that the simple fact? If an error has been made, who should pay for it? Should it be the people who in good faith continued to believe that widows would get the whole of their SERPS pension entitlement? In my view the very size of the bill puts a greater moral responsibility on the Government to compensate and make some adjustment. I am deeply concerned today that we are going away very shortly for the Summer Recess with no indication as to when the country will know what the Government are going to do to lift this shadow from the lives of so many people.

Earl Russell

The noble Baroness, Lady Castle of Blackburn, has hit the nail on the head. I do not know whether the Minister is a reader of David Lodge's book Changing Places. If so, she will remember the character Howard Ringbaum who could not resist winning even to his own great detriment. I hope that when the Minister finds defects in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, she will bear that danger in mind. She has the choice here between an amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Rix, which is cheap but technically difficult and an amendment from me which is workable but clearly expensive. If I were the Minister I would not try to be too persuasive about the difficulties of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rix.

Lord Davies of Coity

I, too, have listened very attentively to this debate. I have a great deal of sympathy with the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the objective he seeks to achieve. I have spoken on this matter on occasions in the past. But listening to the debate today I find some measure of inconsistency in the question of us all being responsible for doing something about the problem. We have to recognise that only the Government have the responsibility of finding £5 billion in order to deal with the difficulty in full.

As regards the apportionment and criticism that have been levelled, we have to understand that this legislation was introduced in 1986 in both Houses of Parliament and passed. As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has demonstrated, that was 14 years ago and twelve of those years passed when the previous government were in power. This Government have been in power for only two years. I suggest that placing blame on this Government for the lack of information or misinformation is a fragile straw to cling to. Quite frankly, even if people were informed as they should have been 14 years ago, many of them would not have made alternative arrangements when they knew SERPS was to be reduced.

We ought to keep a balance. We have the ombudsman and a Labour Government who are extremely sympathetic to the people who will be adversely affected by the present situation. That is sufficient at this stage rather than trying to impose on the Government the enormous burden of a matter which they did not introduce.

Lord Rix

I said in my introductory speech that the Government have chosen to drink from this poisoned chalice. They had the option two years ago to reverse the 1986 legislation or at least make sure that information was being disseminated from the Benefits Agency. Therefore, whatever they have said about the length of time which has elapsed since 1986 when it was the fault of the Conservative government, and now appears to be that of a Labour Government who have taken up the same baton and are running with it, I do not believe that that is an argument against the fact that the government of the day have a duty to put right what was obviously wrong in 1986. I would have thought that any government with moral fibre, background and constitution would do that as a matter of course.

I have two questions for the Minister to add to those put by the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. There appears to be some delay. As the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, said, we may have to wait for sometime, never, for the ombudsman to respond. Can the Minister say whether some words of comfort can drip from this Government's publicity machine before 5th April 2000? After that date potential and putative widows are extremely worried as to what will happen from that date onwards.

Could not a letter be forthcoming from the Benefits Agency apologising for the enormous damage which it has caused, and pointing out the detrimental effects that its incorrect information has had on many people, both husbands and wives? Could not such a letter also carry some crumbs of comfort that the Minister of State in another place has said that compensation will be paid to those who are due to be compensated? That would at least be something to hold the fort, as it were, before 5th April next year; otherwise, if the ombudsman has not reported and the matter is referred to the European Court of Human Rights—which could take another five years—what will happen then? Indeed, many widows will be walking around with furrowed brows. Can the Minister possibly answer those questions?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am very sorry, but I cannot take Members of the Committee very much further than what was said on the last amendment, which was debated on the previous Committee day. I know that noble Lords are pressing the matter with three separate amendments, which happened to fall due for debate on two different days, but I am afraid that I am being asked to give information that is not available and to answer questions that I cannot answer because I do not have the relevant information. Indeed, in the course of the process, we have not yet made our final determinations.

In response to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, I should remind the Committee that no one has yet suffered any financial loss as a result of these changes because they do not take effect until April 2000. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that the Government must have their position and their response clear by that time. We said this not only on the last Committee day but also during Question Time in this Chamber; indeed, we have made that clear.

The Government have also made it clear on several occasions that they would consider claims for compensation from individuals who have received incorrect information, which has either subsequently acted to their detriment or failed to act to their benefit. I am sure that all noble Lords accept just how complicated the evidence in that respect will turn out to be. The other option available to the Government is some possible staged deferral. However, we have not yet determined what our response should be. We do not know where the problems originated because we do not have access to the previous government's paperwork. Clearly a Statement will be made before April 2000, and I am very happy to give the noble Lord that reassurance. I hope that it will be helpful.

I wish that I could take Members of the Committee further, but we could continue such discussions for a few more hours and all I would be able to stand up and say is, "I cannot take noble Lords any further". When I have information that I can bring to the House, I shall be delighted to do so. As my noble friend rightly said, many widows or widowers have obviously made provision on a misunderstanding of what the situation would be. In so far as that has caused them stress or potential financial detriment, it is not a situation that we would wish them to be in. The Government will do their best under the circumstances, while balancing the pressures that we face. As soon as I can give noble Lords any further information, as I said, I shall be very happy to do so. With that undertaking, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Rix

Obviously I had hoped that the Minister would assure us that at least the Benefits Agency would send out a letter to people who are likely to suffer under this SERPS arrangements at present. Clearly, SERPS is being widely reported in the media and, judging by the letters which I have received—certainly by the thousands of letters which Age Concern has received—many people are extremely worried at this moment. They would like some assurance that due attention is being paid to the situation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I shall obviously take note of the noble Lord's suggestion and consider it. I do not know whether the noble Lord is inviting us to write to everyone in this respect, including those who know about it or are unaffected by it; or, indeed, those who have never been given any misleading evidence. However, I shall read Hansard carefully and consider what the noble Lord has said.

Lord Rix

I thank the Minister. Leaflets have been incorrectly printed over the years and have been sent out in their tens of thousands—indeed, probably millions—from the Benefits Agency. I am merely asking for a round robin letter to all those who are likely to be in receipt of SERPS, stating the present position and, possibly, the future position. That might clear many people's minds before 5th April—

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I should point out to the noble Lord that there is no way that the Government could send out a letter stating a future position which has not yet been decided. However, I take the noble Lord's point that there is concern in this respect. Obviously, the Government will seek to ascertain whether there is any way in which we can allay the concern between now and the point at which we can bring our proposals to this and the other place.

Lord Rix

I am very happy with that assurance. I had contemplated seeking a Division on this amendment. However, in view of the possibilities of complicating any judicial findings or later findings of the ombudsman, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 91B not moved.]

[Amendment No. 92 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 92A not moved.]

Clause 51 agreed to.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 92B:

After Clause 51, insert the following new clause—