Clause 245 - Commencement

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 22nd April 2004.

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

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

Subsection (1) states:

''Subject to subsections (2) to (4), the provisions of this Act come into force in accordance with''

when the Secretary of State says so. I have looked into this only briefly, but it appears to me that the introduction of the pension protection fund is not covered in subsections (2) to (4), and that therefore the Secretary of State will have the power to decide when it will be introduced.

The word on the street is that that might not happen in April 2005 because the Government are so far behind that the work has hardly begun. That is not merely a debating point; it is an important and substantive one. My party voted for this Bill, and it wants pension protection to be introduced, so it would be regrettable if the Department's delays meant that it came into force late. My question on clause 245(1) is this: do the Government still intend that the Secretary of State will commence by order the part of the Bill relating to the PPF in April 2005, or is there any danger that that timetable might not be adhered to?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I was not proposing to speak on this clause, but I am alarmed by the word on the hon. Gentleman's street, although it may be a rather different street from those that the rest of us are familiar with.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

''Sesame Street'', Quality Street; keep them coming.

I had not heard that word on the street. However, it would not surprise members of my party because not only do we endorse the Government's description of this timetable as challenging, but we think it has become more so. That is why I have made our position clear; we must first get the PPF right. We are putting things into this legislation that will give the PPF structural problems that may prove to be extremely dangerous in its early stages; I am thinking of the question of the levy and how that is calculated, and the risk basis, and so on.

In an earlier debate, I made detailed proposals as to how the interim situation involving the 60,000 people—and any others who might be unfortunate enough to face the same problem as them—could still be addressed without rushing into ill judged legislation on a self-imposed political timetable. Ministers have made urbane arguments and somehow they have persuaded people. Even the BBC website is saying that there will be a guarantee of 100 per cent. of people's pensions, or 90 per cent. if they are still working. We are writing to the BBC to get it to correct that because it is simply untrue, as we all know.

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

Given the hon. Gentleman's penchant for technology, may I suggest that he e-mails the BBC website rather than writes to it?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

My people will speak to their people and something will get sorted out by some method of communication, because people are in danger of being conned over this guarantee.

The Government are still using the word ''guarantee.'' Things are happening at two different levels; there is a political level at which the Government are saying, ''We are producing this guarantee, and it will be a total safety net that solves everyone's problems,'' and then there is the reality as stated in the Bill.

If there is any suggestion that there will be a delay in implementing all of this by next spring, we should be the first to hear of it. However, given this Government's track record, we may be the last to hear.

The Minister should not feel any macho need to adhere to what may become an ever more difficult and less practical timetable. He should not be persuaded by the hon. Member for Northavon to do it by next spring, willy-nilly, because there are still some major problems to be addressed. I did not intend to speak on the clause, but I do so because I am so concerned by what the hon. Member for Northavon said. Because he is a Liberal Democrat spokesman, what he says must be true and based on hard fact and evidence.

I should be grateful for an explanation from the Minister.

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

I know that it is a beautiful sunny day, but the silly season seems to have come early. The hon. Member for Northavon is clearly at least in the courteous business of trying out his draft weekend press releases with the Committee. I can see it now in that new Conservative newspaper, The Express: ''Webb warns of delays to PPF.'' What a load of nonsense we have heard today from both the hon. Member for Northavon and the hon. Member for Eastbourne. I have never heard such rubbish in all my life, apart from in the earlier speeches they made.

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

The fact of the matter is that it would be wrong and, indeed, lacking in courtesy to say before the Bill has gone through Parliament—it has not gone to the upper House and we have not yet had Third Reading—that the protection fund and the regulator will definitely be up and running in April, 100 per cent., although that is our firm intention. We are moving ahead successfully in that direction. I am convinced that it will happen then, although to say that with 100 per cent. certainty as the Bill passes through the House would be a discourtesy. However, that is our firm intention.

We know about all the pressures, including most of those in Parliament, although I never know what are the pressures from the Conservative party—it depends what draft employers' press release they are reading from that day. All the pressures from Committee members and other Members of the House have been about doing things as soon as possible to give people the proper protection and end the scandal. It is

irresponsible for anyone to start a hare running and say that things could be delayed until after April.

The hon. Member for Northavon talked about the word on the street. I do not want to be too broad on this matter, but as part of our social policy we are worried about the dangers facing young people on street corners—hence our emphasis on decent schooling, attacking truancy, drug protection and so on. Young people can hear silly, dangerous things that can get them into trouble on street corners. I urge the hon. Gentleman to find a decent street to walk down and have proper, responsible conversations.

The protection fund will be up and running in April 2005. It will be a major step forward in our social reforms for this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 245 ordered to stand part of the Bill.