My Lords, it is a privilege to open this debate today, the fourth day of the debate on the gracious Speech.
I am delighted to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester to this debate. I am sure that the whole House looks forward to their maiden speeches today.
I am also pleased to welcome my noble friend Lord Howe, who will be responding to the many views, proposals and reflections that we will hear today.
The gracious Speech sets out the Government’s dedication to delivering positive change to the United Kingdom. We set out our commitment to landmark reform on social care and pensions, which will reward those who work hard. We look to improve services for vulnerable children and support strong families. The gracious Speech also covered the topics of culture, agriculture, and energy: we put the consumer first while taking decisive action to deliver economic growth.
This Government are committed to reforming the welfare system so that it is fair and affordable while ensuring that the most vulnerable get the support they need. With major reforms such as universal credit, the Work Programme and the personal independence payment already under way, we are helping people to find work, making sure that work pays and focusing support on those with the greatest need.
We now look to the Pensions Bill to apply the principles of modernisation to state pensions, providing a system fit for the 21st century. The Bill, introduced last week, contains provisions to set up the single-tier state pension—a simple flat-rate state pension for future pensioners that is set above the basic level of means-tested support. This will provide the clarity that is needed to help people to plan and save for their retirement. We will create a state pension system that reflects the lives and contributions of today’s working-age people.
Indeed, those who have historically done poorly in the current system—for example, people with caring responsibilities or those with broken work histories—will benefit. In the first 10 years, more than 700,000 women should receive, on average, £9 a week more in state pension through the single-tier valuation.
As life expectancy continues to increase, we are taking action to ensure that the state pension system remains sustainable over the long term. The Pensions Bill will bring forward the increase in state pension age to 67 by eight years, so that it gradually increases from 66 to 67 between 2026 and 2028. The Bill contains provision for a regular review of the state pension age, so that this issue is considered every Parliament. This will ensure that the state pension age remains sustainable and fair between the generations.
The Pensions Bill also contains a number of measures to strengthen private pensions. We estimate that the introduction of automatic enrolment into workplace pension schemes will result in between 6 million and 9 million people either saving for the first time or saving more into workplace pensions. However, without further reform, automatic enrolment will create more dormant pension pots as people move jobs. Therefore, we are legislating to introduce a system of automatic transfers of small pension pots. This will help consolidate pension savings into an individual’s current employer’s scheme, making it easier for people to keep track of their pensions saving, plan for retirement and secure a better retirement income. Finally, the Pensions Bill will make provision for the introduction of the bereavement support payment. This will simplify the current system by moving to a single benefit, with support focused on the period immediately following bereavement.
Continuing on the theme of support, the Government recognise that today’s care and support system often fails to live up to the expectations of those who rely on it. Many have good experiences, but the system can often be confusing, disempowering and not flexible enough to fit around individuals’ lives. The Care Bill takes forward our commitments to reform social care. This will make a reality of our vision for a modern system which promotes people’s well-being. Critically, the Bill will reform care and support funding by creating a cap on care costs, giving people peace of mind by protecting them from catastrophic costs. In providing a new right to deferred payment of care costs, it will also ensure that people do not have to sell their home in their lifetime to pay for residential care
We will refocus the law around the person, not the service, empowering people to take control over their care and support, and to understand their entitlements. We will strengthen the rights of carers to access support and we will introduce a new adult safeguarding framework. We will deliver a number of crucial elements in our response to the findings of the Francis inquiry, which identified failures across the health and care system that must never happen again. We will introduce a ratings system for hospitals and care homes, and a single failure regime, and we will make it a criminal offence for providers to provide false or misleading information.
Therefore, this Bill is vital in delivering our commitment to ensure that patients are,
“the first and foremost consideration of the system and everyone who works in it”.
I am pleased that public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny has demonstrated widespread support for the principles and approach to law reform in adult care and support. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Howe and I are very grateful to those present who have already provided helpful and detailed scrutiny in draft through a Joint Committee of both Houses.
I turn to legislation with which I am personally involved. I am delighted that the Mesothelioma Bill was introduced in this House last week. Diffuse mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lungs or abdomen caused by exposure to asbestos. The Government will act in the interest of people with diffuse mesothelioma and will set up a payment scheme for eligible people who can show that they were negligently exposed to asbestos by their employer and cannot trace an employer and insurer. It will be funded via a levy imposed on insurers currently selling employers’ liability insurance.
I shall now refer to the remaining subjects to be covered in today’s debate on culture, agriculture, energy and education. The gracious Speech outlined measures that will contribute to the economic growth of the nation while also putting the consumer at the heart of what we do. I shall therefore begin with the water Bill. I am pleased that my noble friend Lord De Mauley will be taking this important matter through the House. The water Bill will help us to achieve a future where water is always available to supply households and businesses without damaging the environment. We seek reform that will offer choice and flexibility to customers and help to keep bills affordable. That is essential for our economy.
The water Bill will also contribute to economic growth by encouraging the water sector to become more efficient, creating employment for new entrants to the industry and driving innovation. All business customers will be able to switch their water supplier so that they can achieve the best service and tariff. We will make it easier for water companies to buy and sell water from and to each other. New businesses will find it easier to enter the water market to provide new sources of water or sewerage treatment services, known as “upstream” services. Developers will also find it easier to connect new developments to the water mains and sewerage systems. We believe that this Bill is also the best vehicle for taking measures to address the availability and affordability of flood insurance.
The Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill will enhance protection for consumers. An estimated 80% of remote gambling activity by British consumers takes place with operators that the Gambling Commission does not regulate. The Bill will change this. All operators selling or advertising into the British market, whether from here or abroad, will be required to hold a UK Gambling Commission licence. Under the new regime, all remote gambling operators will be subject to the robust and consistent regulation required to support action against illegal activity and corruption in sport. They will be required to contribute to research, education and treatment in relation to British problem gambling and to comply with licence conditions that protect children and vulnerable adults.
I turn now to children and education. The Children and Families Bill will continue its journey through Parliament, taking forward the Government’s commitments to improve services for vulnerable children and support strong families. It takes forward critical reforms to our adoption, family justice and special educational needs systems. It will support improved educational attainment for looked-after children and strengthen the role of the Children’s Commissioner so that children have a strong and independent advocate for their rights. It introduces a new system of shared leave for new mothers and fathers and contains measures to encourage growth in the childcare sector. I am grateful to noble Lords on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation for the important contribution they have already made during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. It is currently receiving thorough scrutiny in the House of Commons and we look forward to many expert contributions from across this House when it reaches us.
In addition, I am pleased that paving legislation will be introduced through this Bill to enable HMRC to develop the new tax-free childcare scheme that was announced by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in March. This will provide up to £1,200 per child. A further £200 million will be made available for those receiving universal credit, which is equivalent to covering 85% of childcare costs for households qualifying for the universal credit childcare element where the lone parent or both earners in a couple pay income tax.
Lastly, the Energy Bill will also be carried into the 2013-14 Session. This Bill will generate the biggest change to the electricity market since privatisation. It will deliver secure, clean and affordable electricity and ensure that prices are fair. It will attract the £110 billion investment that we need in this decade alone to replace our ageing energy infrastructure with a more diverse and low-carbon energy mix and respond to an increased risk to security of electricity supplies as a large proportion of our existing capacity comes offline.
Investment in new low-carbon generation and reliable capacity will significantly boost economic growth, generating skills and expertise and supporting up to 250,000 jobs across the energy sector, while also helping us to meet our ambitious climate and renewable targets to build a cleaner energy future for Britain and the world. These reforms will work with the market and encourage competition to minimise costs to consumers and deliver the investment the UK needs. We are also using the Energy Bill to ensure that all households get the best deal for their gas and electricity, putting consumers in the driving seat, giving them clear choices, and incentivising companies to compete hard for their custom.
I believe that the measures I have discussed today make a real contribution to delivering positive change and boosting economic growth. I look forward to the balanced and informed debates that will take place over the coming months on this legislative programme, alongside the wisdom and experience that will be shared today. I welcome the contributions of all who are to take part in this debate.