Clause 36 - The register: inspection, provision of information and reports etc

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 11th March 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:30 pm, 11th March 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 189, in

clause 36, page 22, line 34, at end insert

'save that the register will be open to members of the public during normal working hours, but with the home addresses of individual scheme trustees deleted.'.

The clause is about who may inspect the information collected on the register from all those schemes. As I understand it, subsection (2) basically leaves it entirely up to the Secretary of State to decide who can inspect the scheme and who will be able to check up on the information. First, I would appreciate it if the Minister clarified who will be able to look at it. Will it just be the regulator's staff? Will it be staff in the Department for Work and Pensions? Will it be staff in the Inland Revenue and other Departments? Will it be other organisations, such as credit rating agencies, because there are certain provisions whereby financial institutions can get hold of information that is not generally available to the public?

That issue leads me on to my amendment, and the question: why should the register not be public? Amendment No. 189 says that

''the register will be open to members of the public during normal working hours, but with the home addresses of individual scheme trustees deleted.''

That last detail is included to protect their privacy. Why should not we be able to see a register of pension schemes in this country? I am sure that the members of such schemes would be interested in some of the information provided on their behalf. That gives rise to the question whether members will be even aware of the returns that are being made to the register on their behalf by schemes. If the register were public, an interested member of the scheme could check up on it and see what state it was in.

We are coming on to discuss some of the whistleblowing provisions, but obviously a large part of the enforcement of pension law depends on whistleblowing. That has been the case with OPRA and it is envisaged that that situation will continue with the new regulator. Whistleblowing depends on someone knowing that there is something wrong. If they cannot view the register, they will not necessarily know that the information provided in it is incorrect. Therefore, I would have thought that an open scheme would help whistleblowing.

That is hardly an unprecedented thing to ask for. After this sitting finishes—if it finishes in time—we could all go to Companies House and look up the details of companies and directors. I believe that the home addresses of directors are also registered there. Certainly, significant details about companies are registered. I am unable to see why the register needs to be, in effect, private, rather than an open register that all members, and all members of the public, could check.

Scheme tracing was the original function of the current registry. I assume that that the scheme-tracing facility remains and will, perhaps, be improved. One of the complaints is that a scheme can be traced only by sending and receiving letters; there is no provision to do so over the telephone or internet. It would be interesting to find out whether there are any plans to improve that. However, that is secondary to my principal point. Why will the register not be open to members of the public and members of schemes?

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

The Opposition amendment would make the register of schemes available to members of the public, although the names of individual trustees and some of the details would be deleted. Hon. Members have heard me say that the register serves a number of purposes, one of which is to provide a pension-tracing service for members of the public who have lost touch with old pension schemes. That service is currently carried out by OPRA in its role as registrar. Last year it successfully provided contact in response to 25,000 requests.

The quinquennial review of OPRA suggested that tracing should be dealt with by central Government. That is what subsection (2) seeks to allow. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the tracing service is a part of the Government's core strategy to inform people about their pension provision and will in future be undertaken by the Department, rather than the new regulator. We will be able to improve the service offered. The points that the hon. Gentleman made about the use of IT, the net, and so on, are well taken. We will try to ensure that that happens.

The reason why we are resisting what seems, at first sight, to be a reasonable amendment—and why I am asking the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing it—is because we are sensitive to human rights issues. Disclosure to the public at large of information on the register could interfere with the right to respect for private and family life. There is also the further consideration that some of the information provided on the register could be regarded as commercial in confidence and could be of value to other companies, which is another reason why we are reluctant to accept the amendment. Restricted information may be disclosed by the regulator only to specific bodies for specific functions, which are detailed later in the Bill. For example, the Inland Revenue is the most obvious body in terms of its regulatory functions; the pensions ombudsman is another.

In asking the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing the amendment, I undertake to reflect on the strong points that he has made and consider whether there is any possibility of wider usage, notwithstanding the difficulties that I have mentioned.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I welcome what the Minister said about considering the idea. I take his points about the rights to privacy, but people can look up the names of directors in Companies House. Indeed, there are provisions to safeguard directors if they are in a company that is being targeted. For example, there is an unfortunate case in my constituency where a company is being targeted by animal rights extremists, and all the people who work for the company, including the tea lady, have had their houses and cars damaged. As a result, that company has been able to blank out its records at Companies House. For companies in extreme circumstances therefore, it is possible to protect privacy where necessary. Will the Minister think about that?

On commercial confidentiality, on first reading of the clause a lot of the information does not strikes me as particularly commercially sensitive. It is broad information about the status of the scheme and the names and addresses of the trustees. Obviously, if there were an overriding reason of commercial sensitivity why our amendment would not be possible, we would listen to that. However, a lot of this information is regularly disclosed in the accounts of companies that publish their accounts, and I welcome the Minister's indication that he will look into that. That would help convince people that we are trying to create a more open environment, and reassure scheme members in particular that they will be able to see the information that is relevant to their pension and retirement. Given the assurance that the Minister has provided, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.