Occupational Pensions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 11th June 2003.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 12:30 pm, 11th June 2003

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement because today's workers are experiencing a crisis of confidence in their pension funds and some of the measures that he has announced will help to alleviate it. We welcome the proposal to crack down on solvent firms that try to wind up underfunded schemes. That is a welcome change.

We also welcome the proposal to give workers who have worked for their company for a long time better pension protection if the firm becomes insolvent. It is immoral that someone can put a lifetime's savings in a pension scheme and find that they have been taken away. As the Secretary of State said, there is all-party support for that. It is therefore all the more regrettable that, six months on from the publication of the Green Paper, no concrete proposals have been published. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he has not yet put on the table exact details of how the proposal is going to work? The longer this process is delayed, when insolvent employers wind up a scheme, the more workers will be vulnerable.

I have a number of concerns about the measures that the Secretary of State has proposed. Can he confirm that he is watering down the protection that future pensioners will get against inflation? Inflation is running at 3.1 per cent. today, which is higher than the 2.5 per cent. protection that company pensions will get in the future. If those circumstances repeat themselves in the future, will every company pensioner in the land see a year-on-year fall in their real living standards? Does this not also mean that the oldest pensioners, after years of falls in their living standards, could yet again be the poor relation?

By far the most substantial announcement today is the proposed pension protection fund. I absolutely sympathise with the Secretary of State's desire to give people security, but there is a real problem here. Insuring pensions is not like insuring holidays or cars. If a holiday firm goes bankrupt, a few hundred pounds of compensation might be required; if a car crashes, a few thousand might be needed; but if a major company pension fund winds up, we might need a few billion. Is the Secretary of State really saying that the insurance scheme will be allowed to borrow billions of pounds—and, if not, will the Government guarantee to stand behind it? If they will not, this could be a cruel deception. Workers could find that they have lost not only their jobs but their pensions as well, despite having paid for their insurance. We will look positively at proposals for insurance, provided that they are backed by the Government. Without that backing, this could be another cruel con-trick on the work force.