Pensions Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

– in the House of Commons at 12:47 pm on 18th May 2004.

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Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions 12:47 pm, 18th May 2004

I beg to move,

That the Order of 2nd March 2004 (Pensions Bill (Programme)) as amended by the Order of 19th April 2004 be amended by the substitution for paragraphs 4 and 5 of the following—

'4. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table. In that column, any reference to new Clauses or Amendments relating to Part 1, 3, 4 or 5 does not include new Clauses or Amendments relating to any arrangements for financial assistance for members where pension schemes are wound up.

5. The proceedings shown in the first column of the Table shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column.

TABLE
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses standing in the name of a Minister of the Crown, other than new Clauses relating to Part 2 or to any other arrangements for financial assistance for members where pension schemes are wound up; remaining new Clauses and Amendments relating to Part 1; remaining new Clauses and Amendments relating to Part 3; remaining new Clauses and amendments relating to Part 4; remaining new Clauses and amendments relating to Part 5 At the moment of interruption on the first allotted day.
New Clauses and Amendments relating to any arrangements otherwise than through the Pension Protection Fund for financial assistance for members where pension schemes are wound up or relating to the categories of scheme in relation to which the Pension Protection Fund applies Two hours before the moment of interruption on the second allotted day.
New Clauses and Amendments relating to Part 2; remaining new Clauses and Amendments relating to Part 6; remaining new Clauses and Amendments relating to Part 7; remaining new Clauses; Amendments relating to Schedules; new Schedules Three hours before the moment of interruption on the third allotted day.

5A. In the Table "allotted day" means a day on which the Bill is put down on the main business as first Government Order of the Day. 5B. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the third allotted day.'.

The Pensions Bill is a long and technically complex piece of legislation. Following considerable scrutiny during 22 sittings—all enjoyable, I might add—in Standing Committee B, we are now returning to the House for consideration and Third Reading. Not only is the Bill large; it is also very important legislation, and hon. Members deserve time to discuss the amendments tabled at this stage, without debate being unduly restricted. We have a very full agenda to deal with on Report, and for this reason the Government propose to set aside a greater length of time than originally planned for the consideration and Third Reading of the Bill.

Members of the Standing Committee will recognise some of the amendments before us over the next few days, but the Government are tabling further new clauses to reflect changes brought about by both the Finance Bill and the European directive on occupational pensions. We will be hearing further about those subjects later today.

The programme motion before us means that we also intend to discuss today all the Government new clauses. We also intend to take today any amendments or Opposition new clauses that relate to the regulator, scheme-specific funding, retirement planning and part 5 of the Bill, which relates to personal and occupational pension schemes. This will give us a full programme of deliberation today.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

Perhaps I can anticipate my right hon. Friend's question.

The exception to the new clauses is that Government new clause 34—this might have been my right hon. Friend's question—

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

Yes, the English is poor. The exception is that Government new clause 34 will be taken tomorrow, together with amendments to it. That will be followed by new clauses and amendments that relate to the pension protection fund. The Government are fully aware that many hon. Members will want to join in the discussion of this new clause and the remaining business on the PPF. For this reason we believe it is important to set aside a reasonable amount of time for consideration of the subject and so have added a further day's debate for this important new measure. I trust that hon. Members in all parts of the House will welcome the opportunity to support the Government's new proposals in this crucial area. We will conclude our business and any remaining amendments on Thursday, before moving to Third Reading on Thursday afternoon.

Throughout our deliberations in Standing Committee we have had constructive debate on all the issues, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Northavon (Mr. Webb) for their co-operation—I hope that I can still say that in three days' time. They sought assurances that the timetable would allow sufficient time to discuss new clauses and amendments on Report, and I hope they agree that the Government have paid heed to their requests by providing the extra time.

I do not want to use up valuable time by debating this motion for longer than is necessary, because it seems more sensible and productive to spend our time discussing the real issues of concern to the House.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 12:50 pm, 18th May 2004

The Minister is right: we should not allow the programme motion to delay us for too long, but I shall make some quick comments on what he just said and the process by which the Bill has been considered in the House. I did not serve in Committee, and I pay tribute to the members of the Committee from both sides of the House who took on that onerous obligation.

When we heard that we would get three days on Report, we were pleasantly surprised because we thought that that would give us time to consider the Bill properly. We did not expect the Government to concede three days with quite such alacrity. At first, I thought that it was because the Minister is a reasonable man, but I now see that it is because we are considering 28 Government new clauses and 128 Government amendments. Even with three days, we cannot be confident that it will be possible properly to scrutinise 28 Government new clauses and 128 Government amendments.

This debate is the latest example of how the Government have presented the Bill. Hundreds of Government amendments and 36 Government new clauses were introduced in Committee, where the Minister, who is smiling in a slightly guilty way, said:

"I had better not describe it"— the Bill—

"as a work in progress".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 9 March 2004; c. 34.]

The Bill is clearly work in progress, and it has been subject to continuous amendment as it has made its way through this House.

The Green Paper was produced in December 2002 and the White Paper came out in June 2003, but nearly one year later, amendments are being tabled with virtually no time for scrutiny, which suggests that the Government lack a clear and rigorous strategy to tackle the pensions crisis. The Minister is like a schoolboy who is in a perpetual crisis about getting his homework in on time.

It is good to see the Minister in the House. We thought that he might be in Blackpool speaking to the National Pensioners Convention, where my hon. Friend Mr. Waterson is now. Cynics might suggest that one reason why the Bill is on Report today is to give the Minister a good reason not to go to Blackpool to confront the pensioners, who might have told him what they think of the Government's record on pensions.

S

A cheap political shot, to be fair, and called on by the speaker, but the Minister would certainly have had a hard time at Pensioner's Convention: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3723297.stm

Submitted by Simon Cozens

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I apologise if I am ranging more widely than I should. Does the Minister want to intervene?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. The Minister does not want to intervene because he would be out of order, and the hon. Gentleman is out of order.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I shall restrict myself to saying that I am pleased to see the Minister in the House today, despite the possible alternative engagements.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Will the hon. Gentleman apologise when he learns that a Minister is attending today's National Pensioners Convention conference?

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Maria Eagle, is attending the conference, but she is not responsible for pensions. The Minister should be at the National Pensioners Convention conference.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

We will scrutinise the Bill as best we can, but it is difficult for the Commons to perform that role when so many Government new clauses and amendments are produced at such short notice. Outside bodies, which have considerable expertise to offer this House and which may be directly affected by the provisions, also find it difficult to put forward their comments in those circumstances. Perhaps the other place will take the opportunity to correct the mistakes that slip through here because we do not have sufficient time to scrutinise the Bill properly.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 12:55 pm, 18th May 2004

Who could object to a three-day debate on Report, which, on the face of it, offers ample scope for debate?

I thank the Department for Work and Pensions because, along with all the new clauses that we must cover in the next three days, we have been given a briefing, which reached my pigeonhole this morning—obviously, I have read all of it. Some of the briefing relates to new clauses that we will consider in a matter of minutes, which makes a mockery of the suggestion that we are scrutinising this important Bill. We are enormously grateful for the briefing, which we will speed-read and spew back out as best we can.

Instead of moving this programme motion, the Government should have recommitted the Bill to Standing Committee, especially given the substantial new clause 34. New clause 34 arrived on our fax machines on Friday lunchtime, and we have had no time to scrutinise it in detail. As Mr. Willetts rightly says, a lot of the material is technical. It took a long time for people to realise some of the major flaws introduced by the Pensions Act 1995, and I fear that the Bill will introduce many more unforeseen consequences, which just a few more days of mature reflection and detailed scrutiny in Committee would enable us to prevent.

Although the DWP has been helpful by advising us of what was coming, the Bill is not finished—some Government new clauses have not even been written yet. If we want a good Pensions Bill, we need proper scrutiny. Three days on the Floor of the House is not adequate when we are considering Government amendments on which the ink is still wet. The Bill should return to Standing Committee, and we do not believe that the programme motion provides for proper scrutiny.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions 12:57 pm, 18th May 2004

Although we do not want to be drawn on this matter, on occasions in the distant past Ministers have been reprimanded for not coming to this House of Commons. This is the first occasion on which I have been challenged for being in the House of Commons rather than by the seaside in Blackpool. I prefer being here to being in Blackpool, because the Pensions Bill is on Report, and my duty as Minister for Pensions is to the House of Commons.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The objection is that the Pensions Bill is being taken on the same day as the National Pensioners Convention conference in Blackpool.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

Feebler and feebler. The shadow Minister of State, Mr. Waterson, must judge where his priority lies today, and I think that his duty is to this House of Commons.

On the serious issues, we said many times in Committee that the Bill is technical. I have made the point that we have had to amend it, and I apologise for that because I realise that it inconveniences those who wish to scrutinise it. We have always done our best to introduce information at appropriate times, but I have explained in Committee and to the whole House that we were under pressure to introduce the Bill. All other things being equal, we would have taken a year or two to get the Bill absolutely right, with all the semi-colons in the right places, perhaps by introducing a draft Bill. All other things are not equal, however, and tremendous pressure exists to bring security to those people in private companies who have final salary pension schemes and who risk losing all or a large proportion of their pensions, if their company becomes insolvent. Although people are impatient because we cannot introduce such security until April next year, they would be very impatient if we were not to introduce it for another year or two. Therefore, although I apologise as a matter of courtesy, I do not apologise for the fact that the Government are introducing the Bill, even if it means that we have to amend it more heavily and more often than would normally be the case.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

As I am sure the Minister understands, some people cannot retire at the moment such is their uncertainty about their pensionability. It is an issue of life and death for some people—that is why we have to introduce the Bill, get it right and do it quickly.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

Let me sum up by saying that notwithstanding the Bill's complexity, we think that three days is a very adequate amount of time for the House to consider it on Report and Third Reading.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 260, Noes 154.

Division number 179 Pensions Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Aye: 260 MPs

No: 154 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.