Pensions Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:10 pm on 2nd March 2004.

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Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland 6:10 pm, 2nd March 2004

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I shall not give way, as my hon. Friend Mr. Tynan wishes to have 10 minutes to make a speech. I am sure that when Mr. Waterson sums up, he will manage to put the record straight.

Mr. Ruffley said that since 1997 there has been a lack of consultation by the Government. I asked myself what good things happened in the 18 years between 1979 and 1997, then I realised that there were none. The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer and as he knows, ignorance is no excuse. He was happy that his hon. Friend's constituents would lose between £30 and £38 a week. I ask members of his Front-Bench team to give the hon. Gentleman a better brief and a smaller shovel.

The pension protection fund is in many ways the antithesis of the laissez-faire Thatcherism newly reclaimed by Mr. Letwin which, as I witnessed at Defence questions yesterday, caused so much discomfort for Mr. Soames. The PPF shows the importance of judicious Government intervention to protect those who suffer through no fault of their own. The Government did not become insolvent, the Government did not employ the people concerned, yet the Government will step in to protect their pensions.

The House should deal with pensions as a cross-party issue, but today we have again seen Opposition parties indulge in opportunistic petty point-scoring. The saddest thing about the debate is the fact that the Opposition tabled an amendment. One of the problems discussed earlier by Front-Bench spokesmen was that cost seems to be a sticking point for the Government. Perhaps I could suggest a solution that I have not heard today to cover some of the costs. Why do we not take a windfall tax from the banks, which seem to think nothing of ripping off their customers? The billions of pounds that they have made in profits in the past year would, could and I say should be used to help the people of this country. In that way we would at last see the banks meeting their moral responsibilities, which they have sadly failed to do over a number of years.

There are a few points on which I would appreciate clarification from the Minister. Does the Bill cover measures to protect pensions when trustees compromise a pension fund's debt in an attempt to prevent insolvency? Will the Bill place members of a pension fund higher up the list of priority creditors at insolvency? The other substantive aspect of the Bill on which I would like clarification is the extension of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 to private sector transfers. The degree of protection on offer from the Government appears to have been reduced since the launch of the initial consultation document in 2001. What is the Minister's estimate of the sufficiency of the 6 per cent. requirement for a transferee matching an employee's contributions? After all, that could still allow considerable damage to be done to individuals' pension funds. Under such circumstances, my own pension fund with BT would be halved.

Can my hon. Friend clarify whether acquiring employers will have to provide the 6 per cent. maximum contribution, even if the tranferer's contribution was lower? I have said on many occasions that I would support compulsory contributions of about 9 per cent. from employers and of 6 per cent. from employees. Until this or any other Government introduce that, the future financial concerns of an ever-aging population will not be met.

The different ways in which people provide for their retirement and the number of people unable to make such provision require the Government to take a holistic approach to pensions. That has, I believe, been done. First, Labour began tackling pensioner poverty, then we assisted pensioners with modest savings. The Bill addresses many of the concerns of people who have a private pension but lack security. It is the product of considerable thought, it tackles problems of long-term importance and exemplifies the Government's commitment to our pensioners. It may stop short of what I personally would want, but it is a considerable step forward. I am glad the Liberal Democrats will support us in the Lobby tonight, although it is sad that there will be a Division. That says more about the Opposition than about the Government.

In conclusion, I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench. They have done an excellent job. They must consider compulsory contributions and retrospective payments, as I am sure they are intelligent enough to recognise.