Clause 52

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:45 pm on 31st January 2008.

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Consultation of members and employers

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Liberal Democrat, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey

I beg to move amendment No. 154, in clause 52, page 25, line 26, leave out subsection (3) and insert—

‘(3) The Members’ Panel is to consist of such members and future members, or persons representing the interests of members and future members, as the trustees may appoint.

(3A) The trustees must appoint one of the members of the Members’ Panel to be the chairman of the Panel.

(3B) The trustees must secure that the membership of the Members’ Panel is such as to:

(a) give a fair degree of representation to members and future members; and

(b) respect diversity among members and future members of the scheme.

(3C) The chairman and other members of the Members’ Panel are to be—

(a) appointed for a fixed period, and on other terms and conditions, determined by the trustees, and

(b) paid by the trustees in accordance with provision made by or under the terms of appointment.

(3D) But a person may be removed from office in accordance with those terms and conditions only with the approval of the Secretary of State.

(3E) A person who ceases to be a chairman or another member of the Members’ Panel may be re-appointed.

(3F) Representations by the Members’ Panel—

(a) the Trustees must consider any representations made to it by the Members’ Panel.

(b) if the Trustees disagree with a view expressed, or proposal made, in the representations, it must give the Members’ Panel a notice to that effect stating its reasons for disagreeing.

(c) the Members’ Panel may publish such information as it thinks fit about any representations made by it to the trustees.

(d) where the Members’ Panel publishes information about any representations made by it, the trustees must publish any notice it gives under subsection (2) in respect of those representations.

(3G) Advice and research functions of the Members’ Panel—

(a) The Members’ Panel may, at the request of the trustees—

(i) carry out research for the trustees;

(ii) give advice to the trustees.

(b) The trustees must consider any advice given and the results of any research carried out under this section.

(c) the Members’ Panel may publish such information as it thinks fit about advice it gives, and about the results of research carried out by it, under this section.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Labour, Rossendale and Darwen

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 115, in clause 52, page 25, line 26, leave out ‘panels are’ and insert ‘employers panel is’.

No. 27, in clause 52, page 25, line 26, leave out ‘by order under section 50, or’.

No. 101, in clause 52, page 25, line 27, at end insert—

‘(3A) The members’ panel shall be comprised of members of the scheme nominated and selected by a process including all the members of the scheme or an organisation representing the members.’.

No. 64, in clause 52, page 25, line 28, after ‘panel’, insert ‘and employers’ panel’.

No. 155, in clause 52, page 25, line 30, leave out subsection 5.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Liberal Democrat, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey

Amendment No. 154 is lengthy and the purpose behind it might take a little time to explain.

The Bill naturally and rightly contains provisions in clause 52 for the consultation of scheme members and employers, and the establishment of a members’ panel and an employers’ panel. I am grateful for advice and suggestions from Age Concern about the amendment, which tries to set out in more detail what the role of the members’ panel should be, how it should work and, particularly, the fact that it should be properly resourced.

The members’ panel will have a big role in ensuring that the scheme acts in the best interests of members. It is thus essential that the members’ panel is given both appropriate powers and sufficient resources to carry out its responsibilities and meet its obligations effectively. Giving the panel the power to make formal representations and the right to a formal reply would mean that it could quite simply not be ignored. The Minister might say that the panel would not be ignored in practice, but the amendment would ensure that it could not be ignored.

Any good approach to consultation, in which many hon. Members will have been involved in their constituencies or elsewhere, will encourage the sponsoring body to seek the panel’s views at an early stage. Certainly, the principles of good community consultation would suggest not getting to the end of one’s deliberations and reaching conclusions, and only then asking people what they think. A proper consultation engages with those who have a right to be consulted along the way, thus leading to better policy making. That reduces, but cannot totally eliminate, the likelihood of serious disagreements emerging late in the process. Such an approach would also demonstrate to members and potential members that the panel was independent of trustees.

The amendment would empower the panel to carry out research, and that would ensure that there was a good evidence base for its advice. Employers and the financial services industry, which quite properly takes a great interest in the development of personal accounts, as members of the Committee will be all too aware, are likely to have access to considerably greater expertise and financial resources than members and potential members. A statutory right to carry out research would ensure that funding was available to redress the balance and to plug the knowledge gap from a perspective that had scheme members’ interests at heart. Without such a statutory right, any research funding would be available only at the discretion of trustees. The right would also ensure that the panel was able to research the views of members and potential members so that it could represent their views fairly, although I am sure that the Minister would envisage that anyway. PADA is already doing some research among potential members and is seeking public opinion to try to understand how people view the scheme.

Meaningful participation in processes that are designed to make policy often requires detailed work to analyse the possible impact of future developments. I am told  that the experience of existing panels is that the work requires individuals with both a strong personal commitment and the time to devote to understanding issues that are often highly technical. That is why it should be possible, when necessary, for trustees to pay panel members more than just expenses. If a substantial time commitment or effort is required for a particular piece of work, it needs to be made clear that panel members can be paid so that they are enabled to participate fully. Without that, there will be a risk that the panel will either attract only those who can afford to take time off, or that its advice will be rushed or ill-thought, neither of which would be the Minister’s intention when seeking to establish a members’ panel.

In addition, there is an argument that membership of the panel should not necessarily be restricted to people who are current members of the scheme because it should also be able to take account of the needs of future members, who are specifically referred to in the principles of PADA, which will be debated under clause 62. Such a measure would be unduly restrictive, such as if a panel member had retired and was no longer a member of the personal accounts scheme. The panel will also benefit from the involvement of people with particular knowledge and skills who might not be attracted from within the membership base. Research by the National Consumer Council found that people sometimes simply wanted to be confident that their interests are being fully represented by others.

The amendment would also provide for the right to reappoint members. That right, within the context of an overall maximum term of appointment, would avoid any suggestion that an individual could be leaned on. Such a practice is followed in other bodies.

The amendment is detailed because it relates to an important aspect of how the system works. It seeks to reflect the Government’s intention properly. I hope that it will give the Minister the opportunity to put on record that he has detailed intentions in many of the areas to which the amendment refers. Those areas include how the system will work, how panel members could be appointed, how their work could be resourced, and how the contribution of panel members could be properly paid for so that we were able to attract the broadest range of people as members.

Other issues are the fact that the panel’s terms of reference and the way in which it is constructed should not deter people who might not have the resources or personal means to take lengthy periods of time off work, and that outside experts who might not necessarily be members of the scheme could also be involved in the panel when appropriate so that it could act as broadly and independently as possible in the interests of members and with full consultation with the trustees from the beginning.

An area to which we will no doubt return is the fact that while the Bill sets out clear principles for PADA, it does not set down principles for the Personal Accounts Board to follow, when it inherits the scheme and takes it over. The members’ panel will have a critical role in ensuring that members’ interests continue to be at the heart of what we expect to be a scheme that will last for a long time.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions 2:00 pm, 31st January 2008

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey for probably taking less time to introduce his amendment than it would have taken to read it out.

Amendment No. 154 is very detailed. It is a tad prescriptive, so we probably would not join him in voting for it, if he pressed it to a Division, although I got the impression that he was just trying to draw out a comment from the Minister on its contents. The amendment has Age Concern’s seal of approval, which is very important.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the role of the members’ panel is important now, as it will be in the future. He is right to say how important it will be when PADA changes to become the board. He is also right that there is no point in setting up a members’ panel if it is going to be ignored and not listened to—if it is just to look good. He has not tabled a similarly detailed amendment about the employers’ panel, which is a pity, in a way. Perhaps he takes the view that employers can look after themselves on these matters and have sharp enough elbows to ensure that they get their point across.

I wish to speak fairly briefly to my two amendments in the group—amendments Nos. 27 and 64. The purpose of amendment no. 27 is really to probe the Minister. It would leave subsection (3) as stating that the composition and functions of the two panels would be determined by the trustees under an order. I do not see why we should have an alternative in there for the Secretary of State to make an order, which is how I read the measure. If independent trustees are being set up, they should be in charge. The Minister is looking puzzled—that must mean that either I have it horribly wrong, or he has suddenly realised that there is a gaping flaw in the Bill.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Pension Reform), Department for Work and Pensions

There is not a gaping flaw in our Bill. I was not entirely clear about the order. Under the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, the composition functions of the panel would be determined by the trustees under an order, but who would make the order? How would the trustees make an order? Such an order would usually mean a parliamentary order, so they would not be able to do that. Presumably, the amendment should refer to some sort of rules set by the trustees.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

This is the Minister’s Bill, not mine. I have not drafted it. It suggests that there are two ways to go:

“by order under section 50”,

which would be made in the traditional fashion by the Secretary of State

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Pension Reform), Department for Work and Pensions

Let me clarify the situation. Our position is that the composition and functions of the panel can be determined either by an order under clause 50, or by the trustees acting under an order under clause 50 so that they may make the detailed rules. Either way, there will be an order under clause 50. Clause 50 would be applied in either case. Under the amendment, there would be no clear order-making power.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that, but he has not dealt with my central point: why not just leave it to the trustees? However, I am glad that we have sorted that out because it was ruining my day. Why should the Secretary of State be involved in this at all? Surely, the ideal situation is to set up the trustees—good, competent people at arm’s length—who can make these decisions, rather than being interfered with by the Secretary of State.

I appreciate that the amendment would make an even bigger nonsense of subsection (3), but if the Minister accepts my basic premise, he can go away and use all the resources of the Department to draft an amendment that is going to work. I do not understand why Ministers should be involved in this at all. That deals satisfactorily, or otherwise, with amendment No. 27.

Amendment No. 64 concerns the functions of the members’ panel under subsection (4). It is conceptually very important that the members’ and employers’ panels are seen as equally important with regard to advice and the role that they have in developing personal accounts. As I said, one of my objections to the very long amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey was that it covered the members’ panel but did nothing for the employers’ panel.

Subsection (4) says that one of the functions of the members’ panel—it does not mention the employers’ panel—is to nominate individuals to be members of the trustee corporation. This is slightly academic because presumably anybody could nominate people to be members of the trustee corporation, just as it sometimes seems that anyone can nominate themselves or a relative for an honour.

If we are to have a members’ panel, and to take it seriously and listen to it, and if we are to have an employers’ panel, and to take it seriously and listen to it, they should have equal status wherever possible. I cannot think of a good reason why the Minister should not accept that amendment, which I commend to him.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Labour, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

I want to speak briefly about how members of the members’ panel are to be selected. I have been briefed by UNITE, which is not the organisation comprising the Transport and General Workers Union and Amicus. This UNITE got its name a lot earlier. It represents BT and Post Office pensioners and has existed for several of decades. It is in negotiations with Unite, the trade union, about the name.

I am sure the Minister is aware of UNITE’s submission. It makes the very good point that it is extremely successful in maintaining contact with members of both those large pension funds and keeping them well informed of developments. It suggests that there must be some form of election. That is the way in which it has worked for a long time—it was set up in the 1920s as a pensioners’ organisation for the Post Office.

I would be interested to hear how my hon. and learned Friend the Minister thinks that members of this members’ panel will be chosen. Will that occur through election or by nomination? If so, who will nominate these people? What is the direct connection with the members of the scheme? How will those who  are contributing to the scheme be kept informed of developments? I recommend that he and his officials read the UNITE briefing, if he has not already seen it

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Pension Reform), Department for Work and Pensions

Clause 52 deals with consultation with members and employers. The Government believe that engagement with all participants in the scheme is vital for success. We have designed the Bill so that the scheme order must require the trustee to make and maintain arrangements for ongoing consultation. We need an order to oblige or enable trustees to do things.

This scheme will have a very large and diverse membership with many thousands of participating employers. It is vital that there are good channels of communication between them and the trustee to give and receive feedback, thus create a feeling of ownership among members. We consider the establishment of members’ and employers’ panels to be absolutely fundamental to the process, although that is by no means the only way that the trustee would communicate with members and employers.

The authority will consider how these panels should operate, including by looking at similar existing arrangements, such as those for the Financial Services Authority consumer and practitioner panels. Recommendations will be made on the constitution and remit of these panels, taking account of current best practice.

The answer to the point about election made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire is that I do not yet know what recommendations are going to come forward from PADA. Election is obviously one of the ways, and nomination is another, but questions then arise of how to go through the nomination process, which organisations will have the right to nominate, and how we use the process of getting to literally millions of members to enable some sort of election to take place.

I do not have final answers for my hon. Friend, except that the submission that he identifies is certainly one way forward of which we will take account. Also, we will want to look at other ways in which very large organisations are able to maintain the engagement and participation of their members. This will be a difficult process, which is why I am unable to be specific about exactly how this will be done. We have time to work this out, but we need to give him and others the reassurance that we see the process of setting up both these panels as absolutely fundamental. They should be set up in a way that commands confidence.

The intention of amendment No.115 is that while the composition and functions of the employers’ panel would be in the scheme order, the members’ panel would be given the freedom to decide its own functions. Amendment No. 27 would provide that the scheme order would require the trustee corporation to establish members’ and employers’ panels, but could not include anything about their composition or functions, because the intention would be that the trustee would make those decisions.

When striking a balance between legislative requirements and independence for the trustee, we need to keep in mind the scale of the scheme. Millions of members will be drawn from thousands of employers. Some will have a few members, while others will have hundreds or  thousands of members. It is likely that many of those members will not have saved in a pension before. That will make the arrangements for engaging and involving members all the more important—and indeed, all the more complex.

This unique aspect of the scheme—and the importance of members feeling ownership of the scheme, if we are to the deliver our ambitions—means that Parliament and the Government have a legitimate interest in ensuring that there is a broad approach to employer and member engagement. I think that we have an interest in this. We want to know that that it is being done and how it is being done. We want to be satisfied that it will be done properly and adequately. That is why the Bill provides for an order under the clause to set the broad composition and functions of a panel.

I reassure hon. Members that it is not our intention that that would determine all the practical detail of how the panel operates. The panel members will be able to make arrangements with the trustee about how they can best represent members, and the methods of consultation and dialogue with the trustee. Therefore, while the order will set the functions of the panels, the panel members will have a significant say in how those functions are discharged.

Amendment No. 101 would provide that all members—or an organisation representing them—would have to be involved in the process of setting up the members’ panel. Amendment No. 154 goes into quite some detail on the constitution and function of the members’ panel and how it interacts with the trustee. It is, of course, essential that the members’ panel is designed to be as representative as reasonably possible. It is also important, however, that, given the unique scale and diversity of the potential membership of the personal accounts scheme, we do not constrain the options available for the authority at this early stage.

It is not for me to anticipate the panels’ work or advice. However, I would not, for example, necessarily want to restrict the scope of a panel to members of the scheme only at this stage. It might be desirable for a scheme of this scale to include room on the panel for national organisations, such as Help the Aged and Age Concern, or those with experience in promoting legal or consumer rights. We need to look at how this ought to operate, rather than trying to form a complete judgment at this stage.

I do not underestimate the challenge of ensuring that all members have a say in the nomination and selection of the members’ panel, for reasons I have already given. That is not to say I disagree in any way with the principle suggested by hon. Members opposite. In fact, I broadly agree. However, I want to ensure that we give the authority sufficient flexibility to consider innovative solutions to what can be a very difficult challenge.

I do not believe we should create primary legislation which, however well intentioned, will so restrict the options they can put to us that we will not be able to make amendments to it except via further primary legislation, even if we all agree that those amendments should be made. If we are to look at the detail of this, it  would be better to do so either in regulations, which are more easily amended as times change, or by a broad-based order followed by decisions made by the trustees and, in due course, by others, including perhaps the members’ panels.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Liberal Democrat, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey 2:15 pm, 31st January 2008

I understand what the Minister says about the need for flexibility in designing this, and I was encouraged by what he said at the beginning of his remarks about following best practice. In the interests of brevity, can I ask him whether the ideas contained in subsections (3F) and (3G) of the amendment—which relate to the way in which the representations made by the panel have to be listened to, and the advice and research functions of the panel—do in fact follow best practice, particularly relating to the financial services consumer panel? Are they are the sorts of things that he would like to see the panel carry out in relation to personal accounts under the Bill?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Pension Reform), Department for Work and Pensions

Members of the trust board would want to have regard to the views of the panel. We would not want them necessarily to be bound in this sense. The trustees are going to have to make decisions. That is what they are there for. When they make decisions, they will no doubt listen to the views of the panel and the members. I suspect that if they went very strongly against either, they would have to have very good reasons for doing so.

However, we are creating a trust-based pension scheme here, in which the trustees have to make decisions. We can say, “Look, we are creating for you a larger scheme than anything that exists at the moment anywhere else in the country, and you probably have greater responsibilities than any other trustees”. One of those obligations is to have regard to the views expressed by the panels. I do not, however, think that we should change the decision-making capacity of trustees so fundamentally that we effectively create a new type of body that has to do what members’ panels say.

The members’ panels are a way of getting soundings. They are not a way to make final decisions. That responsibility must lie where the legal responsibility lies, and that is with the trustees. That is the way other pension schemes work. That is where trust comes from. A genuine sense of responsibility should lie on the trustees’ shoulders.

Amendment No. 64 would give the employers’ panel a similar function to the members’ panel to nominate members of the trustee corporation. The role of the employers’ panel is important. It will be charged with providing advice on matters relating to the scheme as they affect employers. It will be the main channel for consultation between the trustee and the employers. The requirement to have member-nominated trustees stems from the desire to ensure that the scheme is run primarily for the benefit of members. It is the scheme members who ultimately benefit from the introduction of the scheme, especially those people for whom no pension is available at the moment. That is why the Bill ensures that members will be able to nominate trustees, and this is in line with the current legislative requirements. Trusts are there for the benefit of members, not employers. They are beneficial organisations and the beneficial owners are the members. The trustees hold the organisation and its assets in trust for the beneficial owners. That is the way the system works.

All the individuals who form the corporate trustee will have the sole obligation to act in the members’ best interests, rather than representing employers or any other particular interest group. It will not be possible for the trustee to meet its duty of acting in the members’ best interests without taking account of employers’ concerns, but it is not appropriate to appoint members of the trustee with this as a specific role or indeed in any sort of representative capacity for the employers. Employers should not be represented on that board, because the trustees are all there to represent the members.

I want to say a brief word about the effects of amendment No. 27. The amendment as written provides that the trustees will determine the composition and function of the panels under an order. However, the trustees cannot make an order, this being the prerogative of Government. So they would have to set the detail out in some administrative document that would not necessarily be open to any debate, let alone a debate in Parliament. The trustees would later amend the rules to include this detail, but the panels must be established first because the trustees cannot make any rule changes without first consulting the panels. The consequence of this amendment, therefore, would be to delay setting up the panels and remove the public or parliamentary debate about their constitution and functions. I am sure that is not the intention of it, but that would be the consequence, so I just lay that out as a warning.

Turning to amendments Nos. 154 and 155, I note the reference to payments being made to the chair and members of the members’ panel and the points being made about appropriate recompense for those who are acting in that capacity. I would like to take this opportunity to say that I was looking to introduce an amendment to subsection (5) of this clause to make it clearer that all members of both employers’ and members’ panels could receive such payment for their time spent on panel duties and reimbursement of any necessary expenses.

As PADA will be advising on the constitution and functions of these panels, it would also consider and advise on what payments may be appropriate in order to secure the services of the most suitable people to be panel members. So I do want to flag up that, on this particular issue that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey is raising, I do propose to table an amendment that will address at least one of the points that he made in his intervention. I hope with those reassurances and some of the concerns about the detail of these particular amendments the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Liberal Democrat, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey

On the last point that the Minister made about the payments to panel members, I am reassured by what he said. What he is proposing—to bring forward another amendment to widen the scope slightly—will have a beneficial effect, particularly on the range of people who will feel able to take on the duties of involvement in a members’ panel. I do understand what he is saying about the need to think through the scope and range of the panel, and that is what he is asking PADA to do. That will be brought forward in regulations.

I would wish to stress again the importance of the point about research. The Minister has not addressed in his response the question of resources for the panels.  Clearly, a practical arrangement must be reached. The advantage to having at least some reference to this on the face of the Bill, or a clear undertaking from the Minister that it will be included in regulations, is that it is important for the members’ panel especially—there is a difference, as the Minister accurately described, between the employers’ panel and the members’ panel—that it is able to commission and carry out research independently where it deems that to be necessary.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Pension Reform), Department for Work and Pensions

Just to give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance, I take his point in relation to proper resourcing. It will be noted by those on PADA, who look at the detail of this, that we regard both the members’ and employers’ panels as vital. They will therefore need to be appropriately and properly resourced. He also makes a valid and interesting point about research, which I will consider further. I cannot give him any further reassurance on that, but I am sure that those on PADA who will be listening to these debates will be aware that there may well be a requirement that the members’ and employers’ panels should be properly informed. I am conscious, however—I am conscious, too, of the length of this intervention—that there are cost implications which need to be properly factored into it. Rather than trying to deal with that now, we should let PADA do it in due course and advise.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Liberal Democrat, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey

I am grateful to the Minister for that necessarily lengthy intervention and I am reassured. He is right that there has to be a proper balance between the costs found; no doubt PADA will bring that forward. However, an understanding now of the importance of the members’ panel having access to independent research is important. My other point, which relates to the intervention from the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire, concerns the process by which the panel members are chosen—the Minister has addressed that adequately in his response. It also relates to the way in which the views of the panel have to be listened to and responded to by the trustees.

The Minister is right in saying that there is a clear difference between the trustees, who are the sole people for taking decisions, and the panels, who have a responsibility to represent the interests of members and employers and to offer their views. However, it is important—this is something that will have to be borne in mind by PADA—that in constructing the relationship between the panel and the trustees, there are some clear obligations about how the trustees must receive and respond to representations that are made to them by the panel; that is the practice in some other such panels. I hope that those comments will also be noted.

Given much of what the Minister has said, I am happy to withdraw the amendment concerned. However I hope that those points will be noted on the record and by PADA as they go forward to construct the way that the members’ panel works. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Liberal Democrat, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey

I beg to move amendment No. 100, in clause 52, page 25, line 31, at end add—

‘(6) The Secretary of State must provide the panels with—

(a) an annual report considering the impact of means-tested benefits on members of the scheme established under section 50,

(b) an annual report assessing the quality of qualifying schemes’.

I will not take long with this. The amendment makes a point which, although extremely important, is one that we have debated at an earlier stage. The amendment proposes that, in order to support the work of the panels, it is important that the panel members understand the broader context—the backdrop—against which the scheme is operating. Clearly, members and their representatives, particularly those on the members’ panel, will therefore have a specific interest in how the benefits that members are receiving, or are likely to receive, are interacting with the wider pensions environment. This is particularly true in the pensions environment, as it relates to means tested benefits, but also the wider environment that pensioners are exposed to in terms of means tested benefits. Throughout the earlier stages of the Committee’s deliberations we looked at the importance of housing benefit in this context for some pensioners.

The amendment seeks to oblige the Secretary of State to provide the panels with information: first, that concerning the impact of means tested benefits for members of the scheme; and secondly, whether the way in which the concept of levelling down is happening or not. That will also be a matter of concern for the panels. That is the point of the part of the amendment that refers to

“an annual report assessing the quality of qualifying schemes”.

In case the Minister is in any doubt, I repeat that I welcome the commitment he made earlier in our deliberations to undertake a report suggested by Help the Aged on the broader issue of means testing. That will be subject to further consideration and debate in due course. It is also important that information is provided to the panels as they carry out their work, to enable them to understand the context in which the personal accounts are operated. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Pension Reform), Department for Work and Pensions 2:30 pm, 31st January 2008

I am slightly perplexed by this amendment. It is entirely appropriate that we should debate whether it pays to save and also issues around levelling down. The members’ panels, however, are primarily going to be looking at how the scheme itself operates. It is primarily an internally-focused operation looking at whether this pension scheme is properly run, adequately delivering to the members and whether its strategies are taking account of the views of the members. I think that is a pretty big job.

What the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is that members of the panel should be more outward-looking, examining the impact of personal accounts on levelling down, the benefit system, whether it pays to save and that they should be aware of these things because of the impact on members. I appreciate that these things will have an impact on the members, I am just not sure what impact the members’ panel could have on those things as a members’ panel. It is essentially looking to the board of trustees and ensuring that the board of trustees is doing things that  are in the interest of the members. It is a sort of sounding board for the trustees on the operation of the pension scheme.

So while I think these are perfectly proper and legitimate issue which we can debate in a wider context, I am just not sure that they are what I would expect the members’ panel to be focusing on. They will have enough work to do without focusing on those issues. I have no problem with them having information about these things, I am just not convinced that this is what they ought to be up to.

I am confident there will be a proper flow of information between the trustee and the panels, the trustee board will be as keen as the government to make all this work. I do not think it is appropriate to specify the types of information they need to fulfil their duty, to some extent that is for the members’ panels to determine for themselves. I hear what he says about research and if they wanted to get reports on pays to save and whether there is any levelling down, I do not see any reason why they should not get that, but what I would hope if I were ever a member of personal accounts is that whoever is on the members’ panel will be watching the decisions being made by the trustees board and ensuring the trustee is acting in the interest of the members and that investment decisions, the management, the operation, the procedures, the processes of collection and administration and payment are all ones which are in the interests of the members. I just see a different role so I am a little perplexed by the amendment. I do not dispute that the issues are ones we need to discuss, I am just not sure they are issues for the members’ panels. I do not object to them discussing them, it is a matter for them.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Liberal Democrat, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey

I am sorry if the Minister is perplexed. The amendment was not meant to be perplexing and he is right to say that in carrying out their work, the members’ panel obviously has to be focused primarily on the operation of the scheme, decisions made by the trustees and so on, but as he also said, one of the roles of the members’ panel is to make sure the scheme is adequately delivering to members. The point of this amendment is simply seeking to draw this out and in his comments I think he accepted that this was an area where the members’ panel might wish to have information from time to time, and, if they did, there would be no problem with them having it. So, in a sense, I regard my point as having been satisfied by the Minister, and therefore I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.