Clause 170 - The Ombudsman for the Board of the Pension Protection Fund

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 20th April 2004.

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Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne 10:15 am, 20th April 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 514, in

clause 170, page 108, line 10, leave out 'or be removed'.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 515, in

clause 170, page 108, line 11, at end insert

', or

(c) may be removed from office by the Secretary of State with the written agreement of the Lord Chief Justice.'.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I shall have quite a lot to stay on stand part, but the point that I shall make now is fairly narrow, and entirely concerned with subsection (3)(b), which is about the circumstances in which the PPF ombudsman can be removed from office.

This is a serious issue. In amendment No. 515 we suggest that the person should be able to be removed from office only by the Secretary of State with the written agreement of the Lord Chief Justice. That might seem an unusual way of approaching the matter, but I understand that the contractual arrangements with the current ombudsman—the one established under the 1993 legislation—set out that basis for removal. Dismissal of the ombudsman, or non-renewal of his or her appointment, on the grounds of misconduct requires the decision of the Secretary of State, with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice.

There could be situations in which it was politically advantageous for the Secretary of State to dismiss an ombudsman, particularly someone who had come into the job with considerable keenness and a desire to make a difference, so there should be a safeguard against that. I am not wholly committed to the role of the Lord Chief Justice; I drafted the amendment to reflect the current state of affairs. However, there should be some safeguard—some further condition required—in addition to the rather bald statement in the subsection as currently drafted:

''or be removed from office in accordance with those terms and conditions.''

It must be implicit in the subsection that such a removal is at the behest of the Secretary of State, because he is the person named in subsection (2). I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong about that.

This is a question of bolstering the independence of the new PPF ombudsman, and of making it clear that the appointee is there to do a job and should be allowed to get on with it, unless they vacate the office for any normal reason, such as resignation or retirement. There should be a safeguard to prevent the Secretary of State from removing them for no good reason. I am not suggesting that any future Secretary of State would consider doing such a thing, but in case a maverick Secretary of State took against the PPF ombudsman for some reason, some other significant person should be involved. That person need not be the Lord Chief Justice—it could be almost anyone. Perhaps there should be a separate ombudsman to deal with any problems that the PPF ombudsman might face in due course. That would be the Government's default reaction to such a problem, given the way that the Bill has developed and expanded its tentacles during our consideration of it. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response.

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

The hon. Gentleman suggests that there might be a special ombudsman for the PPF ombudsman. I had not realised that he had had sight of one of our new clauses.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Chance would be a fine thing!

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

Very good. I jest, of course. I am so pleased to be talking about the right clause at the right time that I felt like making a small joke.

The clause allows the Secretary of State to determine the terms and conditions for appointing and, if necessary, removing the PPF ombudsman from office. It provides that the Secretary of State may remove the ombudsman from office only in accordance with the terms and conditions. The grounds for removal will include incapacity, bankruptcy and arrangements with creditors. I emphasise that it is unlikely that the Secretary of State would ever need to use that power. As we intend to be in office for a considerable time, we do not anticipate there being a maverick in the post.

The amendments would require the Secretary of State to obtain the written agreement of the Lord Chief Justice before removing the ombudsman from office. We agree with the principle that an independent office holder should be required to confirm removal, but do not believe that it is necessary to include that in the Bill, because we would not want to be limited by legislation to naming one individual—in the case of the amendment, the Lord Chief Justice. The need for an independent office holder to agree to the removal of the PPF ombudsman will be included in the terms and conditions of the post, in the same way as that requirement is included in the terms and conditions of the pensions ombudsman.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that we agree with the spirit of his amendment. A matter as important as the removal of an ombudsman must be considered by another important individual. Our proposal is less expensive than a national referendum, but we agree with the overall spirit of the amendment. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne 10:30 am, 20th April 2004

I am delighted to hear that the Minister has taken this point on board. Although I do not entirely accept his discounting of the possibility that there may be a maverick Secretary of State one fine day, at least the issue will be dealt with in some shape or form. I am delighted to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I beg to move amendment No. 534, in

clause 170, page 108, line 11, at end insert—

'( ) Subject to any provision made by regulations under section 174, the procedure for conducting an investigation by the PPF Ombudsman shall be as he considers appropriate in the circumstances of the case; and he may, in particular, obtain information from such persons, and in such manner, and make such inquiries, as he thinks fit.'.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 536, in

clause 174, page 110, line 42, at end insert—

'( ) For the purposes of any investigation under this section, the PPF Ombudsman shall have the same power as the court in respect of the attendance and examination of witnesses (including the administration of oaths and affirmations and the examination of witnesses abroad) and in respect of the production of documents.'.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

These are probing amendments, as are most of our amendments. I am sure that the matters to which they pertain should, and will, be dealt with in regulation in due course; but we want to flag them as important points of principle for us and get a commitment from the Minister that these are issues on which all the finest minds in the Department for Work and Pensions are working.

Amendment No. 534 is entirely procedural and says that subject to any regulations that may be made

''under section 174, the procedure for conducting an investigation by the PPF Ombudsman shall be as he considers appropriate in the circumstances . . . and he may . . . obtain information from such persons, and in such manner, and make such inquiries, as he thinks fit.''

Perhaps the Minister will say, ''We do not need to set this out in legislation''. He may be right. It is, however, important to make it clear that the ombudsman has wide powers and discretion to seek information from individuals and to seek a variety of different information, and has powers to ensure that that information is supplied.

Amendment No. 536 also makes it clear that the ombudsman should

''have the same power as''

the courts

''in respect of the attendance and examination of witnesses (including the administration of oaths and affirmations and the examination of witnesses abroad) and in respect of the production of documents.''

We go to some lengths in other, unconnected parts of the Bill to set out powers that are available to investigate ongoing problems in pension schemes. We have had some debate about whether some of those powers are too draconian, or not sufficient, and where the famous balance should be struck. However, we are a little light on detail—unless it is in one of these new

clauses that are lurking in the wings—about the ability of the ombudsman to call for information and have powers to ensure that it is available.

A later clause, which we may debate briefly on stand part, deals with obstruction of the PPF ombudsman. Perhaps there are already powers, buried away in legislation, that are applicable to existing ombudsmen, that enable them to do that and will be applied to the new ombudsman as well. If that is so, I should be reassured to hear it from the Minister. It is important to flag up that the ombudsman will have serious powers to call for documents and witnesses, administer oaths, get evidence on oath, and so on, so that he or she can get to the bottom of any problems that are referred to them in future.

The amendments provide a good opportunity for the Minister to take us into his confidence and say how this part of the Government's thinking is developing. Although I appreciate that the entire Bill is work in progress, as far as I can make out, it would be nice to hear how far the Government have got.

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

I think that we are at one on this matter; it is just a question of how we get there. I am happy to take hon. Members into my confidence—albeit briefly, because it is a simple point. As we heard, the amendments seek to ensure that the PPF ombudsman has sufficient powers to conduct effective investigations. Both amendments would include in the Bill provisions that we intend to set out in regulations. To that end, those Opposition amendments would not have any material effect. That said, I fully support the spirit of the proposals, and I assure hon. Members that the regulations will include procedures on how to refer disputes to the PPF ombudsman, and on how he or she will conduct investigations and obtain information.

I should add that the regulation-making power in clause 174(1) and (2)(h) will set out that the PPF ombudsman can compel attendance and examine witnesses just as a court can—a point on which the hon. Gentleman was at pains to seek information. As the spirit of the amendment will be covered in regulations, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am sorry; I was just getting the good news that there are more amendments on the way.

What the Minister says sounds eminently sensible. It was impertinent of me to table the amendment in the first place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 529, in

clause 170, page 108, leave out lines 12 to 18.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments Nos. 531 to 533.

Government new clause 21—Deputy PPF Ombudsmen.

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

I can take the hon. Gentleman's critical scrutiny, and even his scorn; but I find his humility very difficult to take, even so close to the religious holiday that has just been.

This group of Government amendments deals with the establishment and role of the deputy PPF ombudsman. The provision for the role of a deputy was originally set out in clause 170, as hon. Members know. The new clause sets out when a deputy may perform the PPF ombudsman's functions. If, for example, the ombudsman's work load increases unexpectedly, the Secretary of State may decide to appoint one or more deputies to assist with clearing any backlog, thus ensuring timely decisions that avoid unnecessary delay in dealing with applications. That is important because any delay may affect a decision on whether a scheme enters the PPF. It can also affect an individual's compensation entitlements, and earlier this morning we discussed the importance of speed in such matters.

Rather than expanding clause 170 to take account of the provision, we decided that, for the sake of clarity, all matters relating to the deputy position should be contained in a single clause, hence new clause 21. The amendments also amend clause 171, which states that the PPF ombudsman cannot be a member of the House of Commons—[Hon. Members: ''Oh no!'']—so that rules out some very good candidates. That is an important provision. It also rules out Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Those exclusions will extend to the deputy PPF ombudsman, too.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

It was a bit of a blow to hear that Members of the House are not entitled to apply for the job of deputy PPF ombudsman. [Interruption.] However, if the campaigning skills of the hon. Member for Northavon bear fruit—he was in my constituency yesterday—who knows what will happen?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I campaigned for three target councils last year, and we lost control of all of them.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I can inform the hon. Gentleman that he will not break his record this year. The ghastly, grisly gang running Eastbourne will be booted out in June, but we will not go any further down that route.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I could see that you were getting a bit nervous there, Mr. Cran.

It is a blow that people like us are not entitled to apply for the job; it would be the height of someone's personal ambition to be able to boast at the golf club that they were the deputy PPF ombudsman, even as opposed to the PPF ombudsman.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I do not play golf; I was citing a fictitious example.

We have a few thoughts on the matter. It is sensible to have a deputy PPF ombudsman. I am sure that that

will be a relief to the ombudsman. I have some questions about who would decide when the deputy kicked in, as it were. That does not seem entirely clear. Will the position be like that of a deputy judge, called on to determine a particular case when the ombudsman is not available, or will it be open to the ombudsman to delegate matters to his or her deputy? The latter is much more sensible because the whole point of a deputy—who knows, there might be more than one—which entitles them to have the tin star pinned to their breast, is that they are there when needed.

Subsection (4) of new clause 21 sets out only three circumstances in which the deputy may perform the functions of the ombudsman, the first of which is

''during any vacancy in that office''.

That is eminently sensible, if the ombudsman had been dismissed by the fictitious maverick Secretary of State. The second circumstance is when the ombudsman is unable to discharge his functions. That also makes sense. Such events could arise due to illness. The third circumstance is

''at any other time, with the consent of the Secretary of State.''

Although, as a Government in waiting, we can see that there are parts of the Bill under which a Secretary of State should have some say, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Secretary of State should have a role in activating the position of the deputy ombudsman. That would call into question what the deputy would do the rest of the time. Is it envisaged that the appointment will be part-time?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Apart from playing golf and boasting about being a deputy in the golf club bar, is it envisaged that the position would be like that of a deputy judge—someone who is practising something else, but who is called in when required by the Lord Chancellor or the court service—or will the person be a full-time employee of the ombudsman service? It is important to know the practicalities at this stage.

The explanatory notes are interesting. When I actually receive them, I often find them more interesting than the bare print of clauses. They state:

''There is a possibility that the PPF Ombudsman's workload could increase unexpectedly''.

What does that mean? What is envisaged will happen? Is anything envisaged happening? The context of the explanatory notes, as well as the way in which the new clause is set out, is that the deputy will be available in an unusual situation. He would not be there to take up the slack when there was pressure on the usual working duties of the ombudsman. We are a little puzzled about that, which brings me back to what sort of person is envisaged to be the deputy.

Full marks to the Government—well, mostly full marks to the Government. [Interruption.] Yes, I must not get carried away, although there has been a new spirit of comradely co-operation this morning, which, I suspect, is just about to be ruined by the arrival in Committee of the young Turk, my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). I wish to make it clear that the role of a deputy is important, useful and

practical. We are not speaking against that in any way, but I am puzzled about the role and how the deputy will be activated to take on the role of the ombudsman.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions 10:45 am, 20th April 2004

As we have said, the Secretary of State may decide to appoint a deputy ombudsman to prevent backlogs of work from accruing. It is obviously difficult to determine at this stage the exact circumstances. We do not know about the work load on the PPF, let alone on the office of the ombudsman, but we hope that it will be slight. However, the capacity to appoint a deputy on a part-time or a full-time basis, depending on the extent of the work load, is an important provision. I am not sure whether it is sensible or possible to say more about it at this stage but we felt that the provision should be in the Bill.

I should explain to the hon. Member for Tatton that the temperature he detects in the Committee may be due to the spirit of Easter and an outbreak of humility—sackcloth and ashes—among hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, including the hon. Member for Northavon.

Amendment agreed to.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 530, in

clause 170, page 108, line 26, at end insert—

'( ) about the delegation of the functions of the PPF Ombudsman to its staff or to any such additional staff;'.

The amendment will ensure that the ombudsman may delegate tasks to the staff available to him, and that the functions that he may delegate are identified clearly in subordinate legislation. The Secretary of State may make provision by order on which functions may be delegated in that way. However, I want to clarify that we do not envisage that staff would ever be permitted to make decisions or determinations on disputes or complaints of maladministration. That function would only be performed by the PPF ombudsman or his deputy. The amendment relates to staff that may be employed directly by the PPF ombudsman, or made available by the Secretary of State, for example on secondment from the Department for Work and Pensions.

I hope the Committee will agree that it is appropriate to ensure that tasks are carried out at the appropriate level within the organisation. This is a common-sense amendment to ensure that the functions that the ombudsman or his deputy may delegate to staff are identified clearly in subordinate legislation. Similar provisions exist for the pensions ombudsman, who is permitted to delegate certain functions to staff by virtue of section 145 of the Pension Schemes Act 1993.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I beg to move amendment No. 535, in

clause 170, page 108, line 34, at end insert—

'( ) For the purposes of the law of defamation, the publication of any matter by the PPF Ombudsman—

(a) in submitting or publishing a report under section 172 or a determination or direction under section 173,

(b) in disclosing any information under section 174, or

(c) in sending to any person a determination or direction

shall be absolutely privileged.'.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 22—Publishing reports etc.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Amendment No. 535 replicates section 151(7) of the Pension Schemes Act 1993 and gives the PPF ombudsman absolute privilege against defamation in the course of his or her duties.

When I tabled the amendment I thought it made a good point and I am delighted that the Government subsequently introduced a new clause that would achieve almost the same thing. The proposal is sensible; there will be no need to press my amendment to a Division as the Government have, in effect, accepted my amendment in its entirety in new clause 22.

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

The Government proposal to introduce new clause 22 has been grouped with the Opposition amendment because both relate to the ombudsman's power to publish reports, and to the status of those reports.

I shall begin by explaining the effect of new clause 22, which will enable the PPF ombudsman to publish a report on any investigation of reviewable matters or maladministration that is carried out by virtue of the regulations under clauses 173 or 174. Furthermore, the publication of matters under any of the appeals provisions in chapter 6 will be absolutely privileged for the purposes of defamation, which includes the annual report issuing statements or directions and so on. It is important that the ombudsman has the freedom and independence to reach decisions and to publish those determinations without fear of prosecution for defamation. It is not contentious because the ombudsman will be carrying out a quasi-judicial function.

The provision is similar to section 151 of the Pension Schemes Act 1993, which states that reports by the ombudsman also have absolute privilege. The hon. Gentleman has effectively agreed to withdraw his amendment given the Government's position.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is indeed the case. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I have refrained from contributing until now, because the amendments dealt with specific aspects of the PPF ombudsman. The stand part debate is an opportunity to discuss whether we should have a PPF ombudsman at all.

All of us, as Members of this House, value the work of ombudsmen and their like. It is important that there is someone to whom one can go who is completely independent, expert and, importantly, free of charge.

A judicial process is not required—at least not one in which solicitors need to be paid—and a person can go to the ombudsman who is provided as a last court of refuge. To that extent, the PPF ombudsman seems like a good idea. However, it raises the question of consistency.

The danger is that we are taking a piecemeal approach to the setting up of ombudsmen. The closest analogy is the financial services ombudsman, who will be dealing with similar matters and is funded by a levy on the industry. I believe that I am right in saying that the financial services ombudsman is not taxpayer-funded. His accountability is therefore quite different from the accountability of the PPF ombudsman, which is being set up under statute. Constituents of mine with a complaint about a bank, building society or other financial institution already go to the financial ombudsman and they sometimes feel that they have not had an independent hearing when they discover that the ombudsman is paid for by the industry.

The PPF ombudsman, which is financed presumably by the taxpayer, must, on the face of it, be an improvement. However, issues of coherence are raised. Have the Government thought about why we would have a taxpayer-funded ombudsman in some cases and not in others? One answer might be that the PPF is taxpayer-funded, so it logically follows. Is there a danger that we will end up with an ombudsman here, an ombudsman there, some being taxpayer-funded, some funded by industry? The quality of service that a person receives and the extent of the ombudsman's independence might end up depending on which body did you down. That is important in relation to people's rights, particularly when it comes to financial matters, pensions and so on.

Is there a danger that every time a new body is set up we end up with a new ombudsman, not just in the Department for Work and Pensions but across Government? We will end up with a proliferation of ombudsmen. Being an ombudsman is a very specialist job. One has to know what one is talking about to be the ombudsman for the PPF, and that is probably true of all ombudsmen. Is there a danger that we will end up with a multiplicity of bureaucracy by having lots of separate ombudsmen? Why do we need a completely free-standing PPF ombudsman? Could that service be part of the pensions ombudsman, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne suggested, or could it be part of the parliamentary ombudsman? At what point do Government decide that for every new body we need a new ombudsman, which is free-standing with its own infrastructure, buildings and secretariat? How far is the public sector getting good value for money? The fact that people do not have to pay to access it and it is independent is all good, but is there a danger that such an ombudsman service is not the most efficient way of doing things? Will the work of the PPF ombudsman duplicate things that the pensions regulator is doing? Will the Minister comment on that? Why not use the existing pensions ombudsman or parliamentary ombudsman? Why do we need another ombudsman? Clearly, we want someone who is independent, but is this the way to deliver it?

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am glad to take part in this stand part debate and pick up on the theme of the hon. Member for Northavon about whether we need a separate PPF ombudsman. I am told by the Library that creating such a position would bring the number of ombudsmen in the country to 18.

I am not sure what the collective noun for ombudsmen is: a complaint of ombudsmen, or a maladministration of ombudsmen? It would be something like that. Anyway, there would be 18 of them. One of the existing 17 is the pensions ombudsman, a position created under the Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1990.

I asked my poor researcher to research the subject of ombudsmen. I am sure that the Minister knows that the position was created in Sweden; the first was established in 1809. It took us 158 years to catch up with the Swedes. Since then, we have been making good time by creating all those different ombudsmen.

The pensions ombudsman is most relevant to what we are talking about. At the moment, he is Mr. David Laverick. His job is to investigate and make decisions on complaints and disputes about the way in which pension schemes are run. His problem, as he made public in his last annual report, is that he has a complex number of jurisdictions. He does not have a general jurisdiction like the parliamentary ombudsman or the local government ombudsman. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the Court of Appeal decision in the Britannic case, which drew a distinction between the taking of an administrative act connected with a scheme, which was outside his jurisdiction, and the administrative actions of a person connected with a scheme, which were within his jurisdiction. I am sure that the Minister has taken that on board.

That distinction has a practical application: the pensions ombudsman has to tell a large number of people who come to him that, unfortunately, he cannot investigate their cases because they fall outwith his fairly specific areas of jurisdiction. He made that point in his annual report for 2002–03. According to the pensions ombudsman website, that is the latest annual report. I have not seen the report for 2003–04; it probably has not been published yet. The website states that in his report

''the Ombudsman had stressed the need for greater simplification of the rules governing who can make complaints to him and how such complaints should be dealt with. He recalled explaining to the House of Commons Select Committee during the year that not all kinds of complainant can, as the law presently stands, complain about the same kind of matter, that not all complainants can complain against the whole range of possible respondents and that there was doubt as to whether all those involved in administering pension schemes lay within his jurisdiction.''

He called for a change in the law that would broaden his jurisdiction and said that a great deal of work and aggravation could be saved without leading to more than a marginal increase in the number of complaints to be investigated.

One would have hoped that the Government would have responded to that in this legislation, but they have not. To my mind they have made the matter worse by creating another ombudsman: the PPF ombudsman. That will only add to the complexity. If

they had a complaint about the way in which a pension scheme was run, pension scheme members would have to decide whether to go to the pensions ombudsman; if they had a complaint about the way in which a pension scheme had been sold, they would have to decide whether to go to the financial ombudsman; if they had a complaint about the way in which a scheme had been handled by the PPF, they would have to decide whether to go to the PPF ombudsman. If I understand the matter correctly, if they were not happy with any of that, they could go to the parliamentary ombudsman to complain about the way in which the pensions ombudsman, the PPF ombudsman or the financial ombudsman had handled their case.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 11:00 am, 20th April 2004

The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. Clearly, one can go to the parliamentary ombudsman about the PPF ombudsman because the PPF ombudsman is statutory, but is an industry-funded ombudsman also statutory? Is that not an example of the confusion that we are getting into?

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is very easy to agree with an intervention when the speaker begins by saying that one has made an interesting point. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent intervention, which makes the point that I am trying to draw out. It is extremely confusing. It is difficult enough as Members of Parliament to know which is the best ombudsman to refer someone to, and we are used to dealing with such cases day in, day out. A member of the public would probably never have been to an ombudsman and would not even have known what an ombudsman was until they suddenly needed one. It will be extremely confusing.

The Government have not spelled out some good, practical reasons why there must be two separate ombudsmen. Within the ombudsman profession, if there is such a thing, there is concern about why two ombudsmen are needed.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of cost. It would, one assumes, be far cheaper to have a single ombudsman for all pensions issues. It would be far simpler and would avoid the cost of duplicating staff and offices. There is no mention in the regulatory impact assessment of the cost of setting up the PPF ombudsman—at least, not that I have discovered. Presumably, there is a considerable cost, if offices, buildings and so on must be found. The existing pensions ombudsman, in the same annual report, complains about the current resources that he receives:

''The bare facts are that in 2002–2003 I received 3,891 enquiries and dealt with 3,684. The net result is that despite a great deal of hard work from my staff and myself, we have been failing to keep up with the incoming tide. The position is likely to be even more difficult in the current financial year''—

the year that has just ended—

''That is when the bulk of time needs to be spent on the work taken in the last year. So far I have allocated no additional resources to cope with that work.''

He is struggling with the resources that he already has. Now the Minister is proposing to set up a wholly separate ombudsman. Will he at least give us an assurance that the new PPF ombudsman will have the

resources that he needs to do his job? Will the ombudsman be able to call in the Government in emergencies? It is possible to imagine that the PPF ombudsman will have a fairly quiet time for month after month—possibly year after year—as a few cases go into the PPF process, after which there is suddenly a rush of collapses and a huge increase in his work. Will the Minister reassure us that that kind of contingency has been provided for?

I understand that the Government's reasons are rather technical ones relating to giving effect to section 54 of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, and that that is the reason behind the creation of two separate ombudsmen. However, many people in the industry to whom we have spoken think that there is a practical problem that can be easily overcome. Perhaps the Government could consider that. The Minister may not have focused—given all the other issues in the Bill—on the question of a PPF ombudsman with all the detail and clarity that he brings to many subjects. Perhaps he will reflect on what has been said and think about whether we need to create two separate ombudsmen. Could not we give the pension ombudsman the powers to investigate the activities of the PPF, thereby making it not only much simpler for the clients, as we must now call them, but much cheaper for the taxpayer?

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

It has been a useful discussion.

The effect of the Britannic case, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, has been to create problems relating to the existing ombudsman's jurisdiction in one-off administrative actions. The pensions ombudsman is currently unable to investigate complaints and disputes that he was intended to investigate. We will discuss that further when we deal with new clauses on the pensions ombudsman, because it is important.

Considering whether it is really necessary to set up a new office of PPF ombudsman, I should like to emphasise that the PPF, as we have discussed previously, is not a pension scheme; it is a compensation scheme for members whose pension schemes are unable to provide them with the benefits that they were expecting. The distinction about who will deal with members' disputes will be clear. For example, if a pension scheme member receives a pension forecast from his scheme showing that he has 20 years' accrued rights but he actually has 25 years' rights, that dispute will have to be raised through the scheme's internal disputes procedures. Conversely, when an approved PPF valuation has been issued and the scheme member is advised that his PPF compensation will be based on fewer years than he thought, the dispute will need to be dealt with through the PPF disputes procedures. Of course, the matter will then be passed to the ombudsman, if necessary. Given the unique nature of the PPF, the case for the new office of the ombudsman is clear.

The costs of the ombudsman will be paid for by Government, but the money will be recovered from the administration levy, so the money will ultimately come from the schemes. That seems appropriate.

We have had an interesting discussion about the importance of the office of ombudsman and the concerns of some hon. Members that there might soon be a plethora of such ombudspeople in Britain. The hon. Gentleman reminded us, thanks to his able research assistant, of the Scandinavian origins of the ombudsman's office. I am not sure what the collective noun of ombudsmen is; a smörgåsbord, perhaps, but that may be more Danish than Swedish. I have forgotten. However, certainly there are now several ombudsmen.

I hope that I have convinced Members that, given the unique nature of the PPF, we need a separate office-holder, to be called the PPF ombudsman. Having said that, none of us can predict the volume of business. We have discussed the need for provision in the Bill for a deputy position, in case the volume becomes substantial. I am aware that there is an issue to do with how the PPF ombudsman's post relates to that of the current pensions ombudsman.

I share with the Committee our intention to start discussions with the pensions ombudsman soon on how his role could be related to that of the PPF ombudsman. It is important not to be specific about that in the Bill, but if it seems sensible to combine the functions of the PPF ombudsman with those of the pensions ombudsman—I do not want to make any final judgment about the matter—we would consider it. However, we have certainly not yet discussed that with the ombudsman, although we have informed him that we want to have that discussion very soon. I repeat that that is not necessarily the road that we will take, not least because of the difficulty of determining what the volume of business will be in the first year or two. However, that is a sensible discussion that my Department should be having.

Mr. Osborne rose—

Mr. Webb rose—

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am very grateful.

I do not think that the Minister has convinced us; he has merely asserted that we need a separate ombudsman because PPF is unique. Everything is unique in a sense, but why does the PPF need its own ombudsman? We need a bit more than that, to be honest.

Not to repeat what the Minister said about the relationship between the PPF and pensions ombudsmen, surely it is perfectly conceivable that someone would have ''problems with their pensions'' that involved them in simultaneous dealings with both ombudsmen. It is an absurdity that someone should have to divide their pensions problems between two ombudsmen. Why not put it all under one roof?

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

I will give way to the hon. Member for Tatton when I have tried to deal with that last point; I have no doubt that my answer will just be another assertion, but I will do my best to appear wise about the subject to the hon. Member for Northavon.

For once, the word ''unique'' is being used appropriately. The PPF is a new institution, and

there is nothing like it. The issue of how to deal with disputes arises, and we discussed that today in relation to internal procedures. We have argued that we need an ombudsman for the office. We need to legislate for that, and we think that it is important that provision for the post is put in the Bill.

Because I think it appropriate to do so, I have shared with the Committee a discussion that we are having. We have alerted the pensions ombudsman to the fact that we need to have a discussion with him about whether it is appropriate for issues that the PPF ombudsman would deal with to be under the same roof—literally, perhaps—as those dealt with by the current pensions ombudsman, and about the possibility that that same individual could perform both functions, at least for a time. [Hon. Members: ''Oh!''] There are pros and cons. [Interruption.] I am not sure that I would want to put it as sharply as that, but this is a discussion that we need to have.

I do not think that there is any inconsistency in saying that we need to assert in legislation that there should be an ombudsman's function but that we also need to think through carefully, having regard to the volume of business and the costs, whether we should combine things by having one person and one deputy, at least for a period. It might be the case that we should do that, at least until we understand the volume of business into the coming decade.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

In a day of U-turns—the statement on the European constitution will be made soon—that may not be the greatest of them. However, it is good to hear the Minister conceding that the Government are considering having a single ombudsman, even if the same person wears two hats. I want to be absolutely clear: I understand that things are not fixed and that there are conversations that the Government need to have, but am I right that they are thinking of starting with the same person fulfilling both roles, presumably with the current pensions ombudsman also fulfilling the role of the PPF ombudsman, and that if the volume of PPF work grows to a great extent they would think of having two separate ombudsmen? Is the Minister saying that they would start off with one combined office but that they would leave open the option of having two separate offices in the future? This is a lengthy intervention, but it is confusing that the same person will exercise different powers in different capacities. We will address the powers later, but will the Minister clarify this confusing matter?

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

Because of the etiquette of how to address hon. Members, I should not quote the famous phrase, ''You can turn if you want to.'' However, the hon. Gentleman can turn if he wants to but, with regard to including in the Bill a PPF ombudsman, we are not for turning. We are legislating for an ombudsman for a new pension protection fund. It is important to include that in the Bill. I have been sharing our thoughts with the Committee because I thought that that was appropriate. We consider that it is proper that we think through the practice of this. We have notified the ombudsman of our need to discuss this matter with him, but we have not yet had that discussion.

There is sensitivity about this, but we are discussing it in Committee. We are scrutinising it. I appreciated that this perfectly proper question about whether we need two buildings and two sets of salaries would arise, and I thought that it would be sensible of me to share my thoughts with Members. The opinions of the current ombudsman will be important. I can imagine that there are pros and cons about whether combining is sensible. There may be disadvantages, and the pensions ombudsman might bring some of those into our thinking. That is why I am not saying what the outcome will be.

The hon. Member for Tatton made a point about the time scale. With regard to all the institutions that we are establishing, none of us can be certain about volumes of work and demand. The PPF ombudsman will probably have relatively little work to do for a year or so; it will take a long time for companies to become bankrupt or insolvent and for the PPF to have to swing into action. Therefore, it is difficult to determine when the first application to the PPF ombudsman might be made. Those are the kinds of practical issues that arise with regard to the establishment of that post. I am thinking aloud, but not drawing conclusions. It is useful to have had this discussion in the Committee. Should we decide to combine the roles in one person, we would have to consider whether that would be for the short, medium or long term; but the arguments for doing that in the short to medium term might be significant.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 11:15 am, 20th April 2004

I seek some clarification. Discussions with the current pensions ombudsman are ongoing. Has the ombudsman expressed a view on whether a separate PPF ombudsman is needed?

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

I understand that we have asked the pensions ombudsman to discuss that matter, but that that discussion has not yet taken place. As far as I know, he has not expressed an opinion to us on the matter. It would be interesting to get his view on it. I suspect that the balance is not necessarily in one direction.

The point is—it is not just a matter of semantics—that two separate offices are important. The fund is new and unique, and we need to have a recognised way in which an appeal to an ombudsman figure can be undertaken, whether that necessitates two separate individuals, perhaps in two separate buildings, or one individual.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It seems a bit strange that the Minister says now that he wants to have that conversation with the pensions ombudsman—because it is important that he talks to him—but that he has not yet done so. When he or his officials were involved in drafting the legislation and decided to create something called a PPF ombudsman, would it not have been sensible for them to speak to the existing pensions ombudsman, given all his experience, before introducing the legislation? Would it not have been better to have the conversation before coming to the Committee rather than afterwards?

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

Others would have argued that if we had done that it would have been inappropriate to do so before discussing these matters in Committee.

The provision as drafted, which I recommend that the Committee accepts, gives us the flexibility that we need. It is important to put into statute the notion of a separate office of PPF ombudsman. How that is brought into being—I shall not repeat all the arguments—is another matter. I thought that rather than argue a line against proposals that the office should be contained under the same roof or in the same person, it was important for me to share my Department's thinking on the matter with members of the Committee. No doubt that approach to open government will invite fresh scrutiny, but so be it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 170, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.