Clause 89 - Borrowing

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 23rd March 2004.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Malcolm Wicks rose—

Mr. Waterson rose—

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

We are both such gentlemen; we were deferring to one another, although that may not continue.

The clause allows the board to borrow sums that it may require from time to time to carry out its functions and to give security for any amounts that it borrows. The power to borrow is designed to address short-term liquidity problems and is normal for many executive, non-departmental public bodies. For example, the provision exists for the Pensions Compensation Board. The board may borrow from certain deposit takers or banks, and this term is defined as organisations authorised to accept deposits, and complies with the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. However, the power will be restricted, in that the board may not borrow if its total borrowing would exceed its borrowing limit, which will be set by the Secretary of State in regulations. The board will, of course, also have to meet legal requirements for the prudent management of its finances and investments.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am grateful for the Minister's explanation, but I have some additional questions. First, he said that borrowing should be restricted to deal with short-term liquidity problems, but our concern is about longer-term liquidity problems. Does the Minister think there is a case for taking a slightly more relaxed attitude to that sort of borrowing? Clause 89(1)(b) states that the board may

''give security for any money borrowed by it.''

What kind of security does the Minister have in mind? Does he mean the uncharged assets of schemes taken over by the board, or other things?

I want to probe the Minister about the basis for the borrowing limit. The heart of the clause is missing,

because the Secretary of State will have the power to decide the borrowing limit. What is the thinking behind the proposal? What criteria will be applied to produce a borrowing limit, and will it be related to the income from the levies, or the income on the assets being administered at a given time? Will the approach be based purely on liquidity or on other relevant issues?

The big question, which hovers around the edges of many of the clauses, is about the Government's position. From my brief but highly informative trip to Washington it seemed that there was a consensus on both sides of the political argument that the American Government could not allow the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to go under. Our Government are being unrealistic in suggesting that they will set up the board and the fund, which will run themselves and not require input from the Government if things go horribly wrong.

In the context of clause 89, that translates into the cost of borrowing because, as I said earlier, if the Government bit the bullet and said that they would stand behind the fund, that would not only satisfy the concerns of people such as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West, but reassure people who need assurance. It is pointless to have this elaborate structure if it does not reassure people, but the cost of borrowing would be that much lower simply because the board would not have to go to the commercial market and there would be some benefit in having support from the Government.

I am sure that the last thing the Treasury wants is to be seen to be backing the fund and I understand the narrow approach that would produce that result. However, the Treasury wants to interfere in all sorts of other aspects of the Bill, as we have seen, so will the Minister give a little more detail about the basis of borrowing, the borrowing limit, security, the Government's role and the cost of borrowing?

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

It is important to emphasise that borrowing is a short-term measure for specific short-term problems that may or may not occur. In the long term, the board may increase the levy and not need to borrow. The difference between what will become the British practice and the United States experience is that the board will have flexibility to make its own judgment on the level and that is crucial. Over time, the fund will accumulate its own assets as it takes over assets, which may be considerable, of failing pension schemes. There will be an income stream from those assets, so we do not foresee borrowing being at the heart of the board's funding—far from it. It is reasonable for the Secretary of State to set a borrowing limit. That is normal for non-departmental public bodies and replicates the provision for the Pension Compensation Board. It is important to remember that the power to borrow is aimed at addressing short-term issues.

On security, I mentioned that the scheme will have considerable assets and there could be security in property owned by the PPF, but borrowing will be only in short-term circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 89 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Margaret Moran.]

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Five o'clock till Thursday 25 March at half-past Nine o'clock.