Pensions Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 7th January 2008.

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Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions 9:30 pm, 7th January 2008

I am happy to accept that form of words, because it summarises what I have been trying to say and what my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said in opening the debate.

There is nothing about those victims in the Bill as it stands. It could have been in the previous Bill if hon. Members had voted for our lifeboat amendments or had been given the chance to include it by the Government. However, we will consign that to history. What we want to know now is when the relevant amendments to the current Bill will be tabled. Provided that the small print delivers what Ministers have promised, we can assure them that that part of the Bill, at least, will have our enthusiastic support. Prior to last year's election that never was, my party promised that if we won that election we would ensure that payments reached the victims within three months of our taking office. Can the Minister confirm that these payments will be made as soon as possible, and certainly within that time scale?

We welcome the parts of the Bill that tackle deregulation or simplification—they will have our broad support, as we have already made plain. However, the plain fact is that the future of traditional defined benefit schemes is hanging in the balance—a point well made by my hon. Friend Mr. Greenway. This may be the last chance to remove as many as possible of the disincentives to good employers who want to keep those schemes open in the future. We think, with respect, that Ministers are being too timid, and we shall table amendments that have the support of organisations such as the Association of Consulting Actuaries so that we can take matters further. I hope that Ministers will give those amendments serious and sober consideration.

The main reason why we will not support the Bill in the Lobby tonight is that Ministers are still clearly in total denial about the potentially damaging effects of means-testing—an issue touched on by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and others. At least the Secretary of State, judging by his press release, now accepts what he calls the "downsides", but how can he say that those downsides

"far outweigh the small risk of saving and later regretting it"?

I am sorry, but I do not agree with Dr. Palmer, who talked about a safety net and means-testing simply being there in case something goes horribly wrong. We are talking about means-testing that is already affecting nearly half of people as they retire. The Pensions Policy Institute and others have set out some genuine concerns that go to the very heart of these proposals, but the Government are the only organisation in a position to model the likely effects and to come up with detailed proposals to avoid disaster. All Ministers seem to be able to do is come up with bland assertions that it will be all right on the night. They are sitting on their hands and hoping that the problem will go away.

The situation is worse than that. In recent weeks, Ministers have tried to shut down any debate on the issue. They have tried to bully the Opposition and even third parties into silence on this crucial point. It has been put like this: the Tories are letting the side down and making party political points for the sake of it, whereas what matters is the majority of people who should be better off with personal accounts. [ Interruption. ] I have that more or less right, I think, judging by the reaction on the Government Benches. However, that is simply not good enough. If Ministers wish for consensus only on their own terms, they have come to the wrong shop. We are interested in consensus only if our concerns and those of other people are listened to and taken seriously. That point was also taken up by the hon. Member for Inverness and other places, all of which seem to have a distillery—Danny Alexander.

If consensus merely delivers ill-thought-out and poorly designed solutions to the pensions crisis, it is a force for ill and not for good. In its usual painstaking way, the Pensions Policy Institute has identified at-risk groups—people who will be no better off and may be worse off if they are auto-enrolled into personal accounts. However, the institute cannot tell us how many people are likely to be affected. The Government could tell us if they wanted to. They have the model, the manpower and the means. However, they seem to be doing nothing. That issue was touched on, I think, by Richard Burden.

Can the Minister for Pensions Reform tell us what modelling, if any, his Department has done, is doing and intends to do on this subject? How many people does he think are likely to be in the at risk groups—thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions? Surely he has some idea. His answer may be that he and those advising him have not given it much thought, but I must tell him that the issue will not go away. That point was made by my hon. Friend Mr. Stuart. The subject will be written about by journalists, raised by financial advisers and used by unscrupulous employers who wish to induce their employees to opt out. I can assure the Minister that the official Opposition will not let it drop—not because we wish to make life gratuitously difficult for Ministers, but because we are genuinely concerned, as are many interested third party organisations, that the problem, if it is not addressed, will undermine the success of personal accounts.

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