Clause 154 - Entry of premises

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 1st April 2004.

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

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

As you know, Mr. Cran, Conservatives are natural defenders of people's legal and human rights, so we are always very worried about clauses with headings such as ''Entry of premises''. That is particularly the case in this instance, as this clause is in the same part of the Bill as the infamous clause 152.

On any view, clause 154 is very widely drawn; it relates to any premises where documents relevant to the employer are kept even if there is no direct evidence that there are any documents to do with the pension scheme in those premises. Presumably, the offices of any advisers to the employer will be included.

Does the clause also enable the board to appear at the premises of a newspaper that is carrying out an investigation into the employer or its funding position in order to obtain relevant documents?

There will need to be some high Chinese walls between those involved in the investigative parts of the PPF—the people who abseil down buildings to get information—and those giving advice or directions on investments. Does the Minister have any comments on that concern?

My final point echoes one made in relation to an earlier amendment. Subsection (5) states that documents

''may be retained until the end of the period''.

There is a basic 12-month period, with extensions. Inherent in that should be the requirement that any such document can be retained unless, on reflection, it is clearly irrelevant to the investigation. Perhaps we should table an amendment to that effect. We have all seen footage of dawn raids by organisations such as the Office of Fair Trading, which seem to have a remarkable ability to hoover up masses of stuff, some of which turns out later to have nothing to do with their investigations. I am sure the Minister agrees that we cannot allow people to go on fishing expeditions, as lawyers persist in calling them.

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

The clause allows the board to appoint a person who may enter scheme premises to gather information in relation to the functions of the PPF. That is not the same as an inspection in the sense of the regulator provision. It will be routine for the board to visit premises, normally with prior appointment, during the assessment period. That is necessary because once a scheme's employer has entered insolvency proceedings, an assessment period will commence.

During that period, the board will carry out a valuation of the assets and liabilities of the scheme, which will be used to inform the decision as to whether that scheme should enter the PPF. The power to enter premises will in that case simply allow actuaries and other professionals to gather the information necessary for that valuation. That is why the board will appoint a person who is authorised to enter premises where information in relation to that scheme may be held. That is similar to an auditor entering premises to view documents, gather data and ask questions. It is vital that the board can carry out the valuation and that it has accurate information to enable it to do so. However, it will not have unrestricted powers; it may only gather information that is relevant to its involvement in that scheme.

I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman, as I tend to do on these occasions. We do not anticipate that a crack squad from the PPF will abseil down the building occupied by the Eastbourne Bugle and storm its offices; that is not our intention.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 154 ordered to stand part of the Bill.