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Mr. Bottomley : The hon. Gentleman made a fairly good speech, in his terms. If he wants me to give way, I will.
Mr. Wilson : I intervene mainly because the hon. Gentleman said that something was disgraceful. I asked for a list of assurances that I understand to have been given to the railway trustees ; no doubt they will eventually be given to the trade unions, but they have not yet been translated into statute. Within the wider framework--to which I continue to object, without apology--immense progress has of course been made, but it now needs to be translated into legislation. I reserve the right for other Labour Members to say that some problems have not been resolved, and I hope that they will take this opportunity to do so.
Mr. Bottomley : The hon. Gentleman did not describe them in his speech. Perhaps he did not know what they were, or perhaps he wanted to spread them around among his hon. Friends.
Over the past 20 years, the basic problem in the railway industry has not been pensions : there is no doubt that the workers' pension funds have been well financed. The basic problem has been overstaffing and under- investment. The biggest problem in Labour's approach to public services--of which public transport is certainly one--is that, given the choice between higher capital investment and higher current subsidies, Labour always chooses higher current subsidies.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. The hon. Gentleman is very experienced in the procedures of the House. We are supposed to be discussing railway pensions ; may we return to that subject ?
Mr. Bottomley : I say that the biggest problem has been under- investment in capital and too much subsidy because Labour has always been in hock to trade unions. That has been bad for those working in the industry, and bad for capital investment.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman clearly did not listen to my earlier remarks. The House is debating railway pensions : will he please return to that subject ?
Mr. Bottomley : I am concerned about pensioners' interests because pensions come from investment, not from current subsidies. Perhaps if I had said all that the other way around it would have been clearer to me what I was trying to explain.
It is important to consider the way in which we are going about our capital investment to secure a railway service, pensions and pay for those working in the industry that match the best in Europe. Railway workers' pay has risen in recent times, as have the pensions of those working in the more modern services that the railways are now developing--which do not just include the channel tunnel services and the lines in which there has been heavy capital investment. If we want that to continue, we must break away from the trade union-Labour party links ordaining that an hon. Member must make a speech after 10 pm, describing a problem that no longer exists in the pensions of those who have worked for British Rail, and those who are working and will receive their pensions from the railway operating companies and Railtrack.
In the face of their sedentary interruptions, I make a plea to Labour Front -Bench spokesmen, who should make their own speeches rather than interrupting mine, that they should try to dedicate themselves to achieving a proper mixture of the interests of those who want to use railways and of those who work in them.
Those who want a capital intensive railway and good pensions for those who work in the railway operating companies and Railtrack should welcome the achievements of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State and should say that the trustees know what they are doing.
An attack has been made on the Treasury, which, generally, is not here to defend itself. That probably is wise because it might occasionally come under attack from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, if one may interpret what he says to it in private. I believe that Ministers should be congratulated on the way in which they have represented the interests of rail workers.
Current and future employees can trust the provisions of the orders. Despite my doubts about the original lack of certainty, I recommend to trustees and workers that they can trust the proposals. Following developments in the past year, current pensioners can believe that their interests are safeguarded and future pensioners can go on taking part in the transformation of the railway industry so that it can start to meet a larger share of the transport needs of this country.
Without a Conservative Government since 1979, the railway industry would be in a worse situation. Pensioners would be experiencing the inflation that they were used to
Column 141under the previous Labour Government. Nobody under 35 can believe that, but as most Labour Members are older than that they know that what I am saying is right.
The reason for the debate is the ancient link of the party political levy. A third of Labour Members have trade union sponsorship and almost all Labour Front-Bench spokesmen receive a third of their election sponsorship from trade unions. I say to them : break the link and we shall be offering a better service to pensioners and other rail users.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : It is always rather embarrassing to see Conservative Members trying to walk backwards and climb on a bandwagon at the same time. Had they any knowledge of what happens to people who get in the way of rolling stock, they might be rather more careful in their use of the English language. The reality is that rail pensioners are exceedingly worried about the orders, not least because their contents were not transmitted to the rail unions until five days after they were officially published. Only when the unions went directly to the Minister and asked for an extension to the consultation period were they given sufficient time to discuss them with their members. The unions then put a number of detailed questions to the Minister but heard nothing further until last Friday. That is not my interpretation of consultation. Pensioners in my constituency--I make no pretence of not representing their interests because I am a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers--are extremely concerned that the Minister, under the guise of protests that he is introducing a highly complex scheme, has not answered to the satisfaction of representatives of railwaymen and women a number of detailed questions that concern them. If what the Minister has done is so reliable and so good for the pensioners involved, why was he not prepared to make the detailed answers available sufficiently early for them to be circulated among the men and women directly affected ? There should have been no difficulty about that. If the Government have only the interests of railwaymen and women at heart, why are they so coy about letting pensioners know what is involved ? If the Minister genuinely believes that the average voter trusts the Government when it comes to pension funds and the denuding of those funds, he has got another think coming. In fact, the average voter has absolutely no trust in the Government in respect of matters that are of concern to all individual members of the scheme. He is not convinced that the fund's surplus will be protected.
Is it true that the Government's proposals will mean that, although they may underwrite deficit years, in other years the Government will have the right to cream off funds ? If so, how do the Government explain that ? What are the changes in the rules on maternity provision ? Is it true that the maternity provisions in the new revised scheme may implement the Social Security Act 1989 but will they also worsen current arrangements by giving the employer discretion ? As there is already clear evidence about the effects of fragmentation in the railway industry, I am afraid that individual pensioners are right to be concerned about what is happening to their future provision.
I know that many hon. Members want to speak. I shall not dignify the remarks of the hon. Member for Eltham
Column 142(Mr. Bottomley) by responding to them but I have this to say to him : if he had worked all his life in a low-paid, often dangerous and frequently undervalued industry, he would not have the effrontery to come here and talk such utter incompetent and arrogant rubbish. 11.6 pm
Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham) : The privatisation of the railways has been a shambles from the word go. At its very inception the Bill was awarded a vote of no confidence--to say the least--by the all-party Select Committee on Transport, of which the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) is a member. It spluttered and faltered its way through its Committee stage and was subject to an unprecedented number of amendments in both Houses, the vast majority of which were tabled by the Government. We might reasonably have expected the shambles to have concluded with the ludicrous and unseemly proceedings of the Reasons Committee last November. However, it continues with the present, highly imperfect statutory instrument which, according to what the Minister has told us this evening, we understand is to be the subject of further amendment. Such confusion and lack of consultation has been the hallmark of privatisation and has persisted to its very dying throes in the proposals that we are now debating.
Let me illustrate how unsatisfactory the consultation process has been by reference to the experience of my sponsoring union--the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers--which has more than a small stake in the issue, through its present and past members of the British Rail pensions fund and through its representation among the British Rail pensions fund trustees. A consultation draft of the proposals was circulated on 31 March, just before the Easter bank holiday. The RMT did not receive it until 7 April. The consultees--the RMT and the other unions involved--were given a mere handful of days until 25 April to examine and respond to the documents, which were several inches thick. Nevertheless, the RMT co-operated as far as possible with the foreshortened timetable and agreed to meet the Minister for Public Transport on 21 April. At that meeting, the Minister agreed to extend the consultation process so that the detailed paper prepared by RMT could be examined. There was no response from the Government to the RMT's points until 4 pm last Friday, 20 May. In other words, the union representing many thousands of actual and potential pensioners had no guarantee that the orders took account of its constructive criticisms. It simply is not good enough. Nor is it good enough for the Secretary of State to claim, as he did in a letter entitled "Railway pensions after privatisation", sent to hon. Members on 18 May, that agreement had been reached with the British Rail pension fund trustees. Other hon. Members have made that point. The plain truth is that the trustees have not met since 5 May and no agreement has been recorded. The trustees have not met to endorse the proposals. Whatever the Minister may say, that is the indisputable truth.
It may well be--the Minister said as much this evening--that something has been settled with the chairman and chief executive of the British Rail pension fund trustees. We have been through this saga already--last summer- -with the memorandum of understanding. We have learnt
Column 143already that the assent of the chairman and the chief executive does not signify unanimous agreement by the trustees-- far from it. There is no excuse for this confusion and for the defective process of consultation that we have witnessed. It has been unfair to the institutional partners, such as RMT, and it has been grossly unfair to the many thousands of senior citizens who rely on their small British Rail pensions to supplement their meagre state pensions or to the thousands of potential pensioners still in railway employment. There are 330,000 of them in total. Those many hundreds of thousands have been subject to quite unnecessary anguish over the past two years as a result of an unnecessary privatisation and the Government's inept handling of it.
Throughout the period, we have witnessed example after example of policy- making on the hoof. Let us consider the present provisions concerning year- for-year credits for staff transferring from one to another employer's section of the industry. Until last Friday and possibly later, it was still unclear whether the protected persons provisions under paragraphs 5 and 6 did ensure that membership of one employer's section of the joint fund would be so credited on transfer.
Now, as we understand it, we have received reassurances from the Minister on the matter. We shall need to examine very carefully the written record tomorrow. Even if the reassurances are satisfactory, it is wrong that they should be subject to last-minute policy clarifications and announcements. It is wrong that staff and the organisations representing them should not have had an adequate opportunity to assess any changes that may have been made. Meanwhile, it is far from clear that the necessary assurances have been offered or will be offered on other fundamental issues of concern. As I understand it, paragraph 8C.1 leaves discretionary powers in the area and paragraph 8C.2 also fails to provide year-to-year credit on compulsory or voluntary transfers. Vital as those considerations are, an even more profound defect is the Government's proposal relating to the so-called "absolute solvency" guarantee in the new railway pension scheme. Certainly, the guarantee given to the existing and deferred pensioners' section of the scheme ensures Government support in deficit years, and that is to be welcomed. At the same time, the Government are now proposing a new mechanism to enable Ministers to harvest the surpluses of the fund in good years to pay back money given under the solvency guarantee. In other words, the solvency guarantee becomes a loan and not a grant.
By no stretch of the imagination can the scheme be regarded as a no less favourable arrangement. It is contrary to the 60 :40 split agreed in the memorandum of understanding. In the event of a deficiency, it could result in members of the scheme being unable to benefit from future surpluses for many years. We have had repeated reassurances from the Government on that issue of "no less favourable terms". It is a scandal that such undertakings are not being honoured.
Privatisation of the railways has been the most unpopular privatisation ever. Never have so many Conservative Members voted with such lack of conviction to so little advantage for their party. Time after time,
Column 144Conservative Members have been driven through the Division Lobby despite their better judgment. The desperate unpopularity of the privatisation scheme may have been allayed at least by the Government's hopes that they could hold out on the promise of milking the pension fund to pay for better times around the corner. They have even failed with that. The railway pensioners rose up and they forced the Government to give up their planned £4 billion clawback from the fund. That was one of the very few pluses in the whole sorry saga, but it was a major gain, for which the Opposition can take their fair share of the credit. Railway privatisation has been a shambles from start to finish and the biggest victim of that shambles have been the Government.
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) : Thank you, Chair. I would like to start by
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Key) : It is Mr. Deputy Speaker
Mr. Heppell : Sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the Minister as well, who seems more upset than you do.
I am a member of the Labour party and I am proud of that. I am also a member of RMT and I am proud of that. I also pay the political levy of RMT, so that money goes to the Labour party and I am proud of that. I am also a deferred member of the British Rail pension scheme and I am proud of that. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), may I tell him that there is no political levy on the British Rail pension fund ? None of my pension is paid to the Labour party. Nothing is paid to the RMT. The fund is for the benefit of existing pensioners and future pensioners, one of which I hope to be at some time. I feel more than a little annoyed that the hon. Member for Eltham has muddied the water in that way, as though it is some sort of political issue generated by the Labour party. I was astonished and, quite honestly, frightened about my future when the plans came out. It was not my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) who implanted some of those worries in my mind, nor was it my other hon. Friends. I was worried because of what I saw in the Government's papers. Effectively, it was one attempt to con me after another and I think that all railway pensioners feel the same. I mentioned to the hon. Member for Eltham earlier that, when I first saw the proposals, the Government talked about my pension being "comparable"--I think that that was the word- -to what it is at present. When I then saw what they were proposing, I quickly realised that it was not comparable.
The Government then changed the words to "no less favourable" and I thought that we were moving in the right direction, but then I saw that they had put forward two options, which were Hobson's choice. Neither of them was even half as good as the pension that I already enjoy. When people say that there are two options, that I have to pick the one that I like best, but I have already got something better, why should I be grateful for that ? Why should I be grateful for the fact that, rather than taking all my money, the Government are taking only half ? I refuse to be grateful and I suspect that the majority of British Rail pensioners will refuse to be grateful, too. Whether or not the Government were ruining British Rail--there is no doubt that they were--the pension fund was thriving. The trustees had invested the money wisely
Column 145and we were enjoying massive surpluses. The employers and the employees had had their contributions frozen. We were not having to pay the amount of contributions that we were paying before and we were looking forward to enjoying extra benefits from the surpluses that had been generated. All of a sudden, the Government realised that there was money to be made. From that moment, things went downhill, but the Government tried to con me and other pensioners that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. I resent the hon. Member for Eltham helping the Government to con people again.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. He is talking as if the Government had not improved their proposals when they have produced a scheme that is acceptable to the trustees. The debate should be focused on the Government's current proposals, which are acceptable to the trustees and should be acceptable to the pensioners. The speeches that we are hearing from the Opposition Benches are being made by Members who are sponsored by trade unions.
Mr. Heppell : That is nonsense.
I suppose I have a vested interest because I am a pensioner irrespective of whether I am a trade unionist, but the Government are relying on short memories. There has been improvement but I want the arrangements to be as good as they were initially. It is not encouraging when the Government say, in effect, "We'll slash your pensions", and then say that they will not slash them quite that much. Should we accept that ? The Government have moved, but not far enough.
We are told that the trustees are happy now, but I remember when the trustees were happier earlier. Some people's memories are failing. There was a memorandum of understanding, but the Government's understanding was different from that of the trustees and their chair. As soon as the trustees understood what the document stated, they did not accept it. It should be understood that the trustees have a voice and a message and some influence on our decision. Their perspective, however, is rather narrow. They are supposed to look after me and other current pensioners, and at the same time they should be protecting the interests of future pensioners.
The Minister talked about the present pensioners but he did not refer to future pensioners. I am concerned because I want those people to have decent pensions. There is nothing wrong with blue-collar employees having good pension schemes, but I have heard Conservative Members express astonishment that railway workers should have such marvellous pension arrangements. They think it disgusting that such lowly workers should have such a marvellous scheme. I am delighted that I am a member of such a scheme and I want to ensure that it stays as it is.
It is all very well for the Minister to say that we have arrived at a compromise. We have a guarantee of the fund's solvency but the arrangements for the Government's payments into the fund are rather cloudy. The so- called compromise was reached because, in effect, during the negotiations a gun was held at the heads of the trustees. They had a choice. They said to themselves, "We agree to this or we get nothing." The compromise is not one that I am prepared to accept. As a pensioner, the proposals are not acceptable to me. I shall continue to fight to ensure that
Column 146pensioners have the scheme that they deserve, the scheme that they had before the Government embarked on the disastrous process of privatisation.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : It is significant that the only attempt by a Conservative Back-Bench Member to justify the orders was made by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who produced a political knockabout about the relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions. Even the hon. Gentleman conceded that a significant change has been made to the earlier proposals. That is why there was such anxiety among those who already benefit from railway pensions and those who are likely to benefit in future. We must surely consider the orders in the context that railway pensioners are some of the lowest paid people in the country. I am frequently appalled at the take-home pay of the railway workers in my constituency to whom I speak. It is therefore hardly surprising that they are very concerned about the way in which this matter will be handled. Those pensioners have become concerned after reading of personal pension sales and the fall in the value of those pensions. Our concerns about the orders are concerns of procedure and, in part, concerns of substance.
With regard to the procedure, the Minister agreed that it was only at 4 pm or 5 pm on Friday that there was a mad scramble to get the documents into the Library. We know what happens on a Friday. There are likely to be very few people around able to receive or adequately to digest documents that are delivered then. The weekend would have passed before people returned to this place.
Had there been an opportunity to scrutinise the documents, some of the anxieties might have been allayed. However, it is clear that in the time available people who were keen to look through the details to discover whether there were remaining areas of concern or detriment to pensioners in what are clearly matters of grave importance for their futures had insufficient time to assess such matters.
When the point was made about the late delivery of the documents on Friday, the Minister said that the order has to go to the other place. However, as I understand it, that will happen in only two or three days' time. There is unlikely to be sufficient time between now and then to examine the matter. As a fall-back position, the Minister said that, even if there is inadequate time between now and the matter going to the other place, further technical orders will allow further opportunities for examination.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : As my hon. Friend has been a Member of this place for some considerable time, does he recollect that it would have been a matter for incredulity at one time if a Minister came before the House and announced that he wanted to legislate on a matter that he knew contained drafting errors ? Does my hon. Friend also agree that, when the matter goes to the other place, it goes in this form and stays in this form ? Even if errors are found in the few days between now and its appearance in another place, there is no procedure whereby the other place can amend the order.
Mr. Anderson : Precisely. As always, Swansea, East agrees with Swansea, West on this matter.
Column 147I hope that the Minister will take this point on board. On a matter of such importance to so many people on low incomes, it is wholly unreasonable for the matter to be handled in this way. That is the point about procedure.
On a brief point of substance, the Minister conceded that there will be a detrimental effect for an element of the pensioners--those who he said had a substantial salary increase on moving from one company to another. He did not give the House details of how many people are likely to be affected or how substantial the pay increase would have to be before they were adversely affected as a result of the Inland Revenue procedure.
I hope that the Minister agrees that the fact that there is Inland Revenue involvement at this stage arises directly from the privatisation procedures. There is, indeed, detriment to an indeterminate number of people arising directly from the orders. 11.29 pm
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : I take great pride in being sponsored by a rail union--the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. I must tell the Minister that the members and pensioners in that union are not experiencing the peace of mind to which he referred in the final sentence of his opening remarks. I intend to ask the Minister questions that have been asked by that membership. Other questions have been touched on by my hon. Friends. I have found the debate which emanated from Conservative Members and from the Minister's opening remarks almost unbelievable. It was left to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) to point out that the British Rail pension scheme was universally acknowledged to be one of the best and best managed schemes in this country until the Government decided to destroy the railway industry by privatising and thought that there might be a strong possibility of getting their hands on £4 billion of surpluses.
I have also found remarkable, in remarks emanating from the Conservative Benches, the presumption that the BR pension scheme somehow belonged to the Government. It was my understanding, and it was certainly the understanding of members of that scheme, that it belonged to the membership. The gloss that the Government have attempted to put on the orders--as though they have, in their infinite wisdom and charity, decided to divine and define a pension scheme that would be of benefit to British Rail pensioners--is outrageous. Eighteen months ago, they deliberately set about trying to destroy that pension scheme. The outcry that was created in the country by those actions, by amendments that they were forced to table, and by the doughty fight put up by Opposition Members in Committee, forced the Government to retract from their initial desire to destroy the pension scheme and to transfer £4 billion, as we perceived, into the Treasury.
Pensioners are still disturbed and they have every right to be disturbed. My hon. Friends have described what seemed to me outrageous behaviour on the part of the Minister, scurrying around attempting to obtain agreements. Pretensions are still being presented in the House that some type of agreement has been reached by the trustees of the scheme when, as my hon. Friend the
Column 148Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, there has been no such meeting. There are still grave worries and we are not scaremongering, even though that is the only cry that Conservative Members ever put to us ; we are not creating fear among pensioners. It is disgraceful that pensioners of the British Rail pension scheme, who have dedicated their lives to an industry and now have to watch it being destroyed, should be presented by Conservative Members as though they had not the brains, the intelligence, the character or the ability to understand what the Government are trying to do. The presentation of those dedicated, highly intelligent and mature people as a will-o'-the-wisp of some kind of party-political shenanigan is proof, if proof were needed, of the basic contempt of Conservative Members for any type of industrial work force.
I have to say to the Minister and to Conservative Members that I believe that worries will grow in future if they do not speedily answer the precise questions that I and my hon. Friends are asking. I intend to ask a couple of precise questions in conclusion, as speedily as possible. If the Government have the idea that there can be any kind of way forward for the scheme and what is left of the national rail industry without direct consultation with the members of that pension scheme, and with the trade unions which are also members of that scheme, as a priority--because obviously there will be changes along the way--the Government can justifiably look forward to even stormier months ahead.
In conclusion, I should like the Minister to answer two direct questions from the union by which I have the honour to be sponsored. They are about the pensioners section. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) referred to the first one--that the society is anxious that payments under the solvency guarantees should be a first charge against future surpluses. ASLEF believes that that is contrary to the intention behind the 60-40 division of surpluses written into the memorandum of understanding. In the event of large deficiencies arising, it could be many years before any surpluses were available for the benefit of members, if at all. I should be grateful if the Minister would give a direct reply to that question.
The other point is rule 16 on winding up the section. Rules 16A and 16B give grave cause for concern as they give the Secretary of State all powers, duties and discretion to wind up the section at any time.
Those are the two particular questions that I have to ask. If my hon. Friends had not asked other questions, I would have asked those questions too. I trust that the Minister will not labour under a delusion that the concerns have been answered satisfactorily. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) used the word "should" many times. He said what members of the British Rail pension scheme should feel. It is not his right or his privilege to tell them what they should feel. They know, and they would like direct answers to genuine concerns.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : Will the hon. Lady give way ?
Mr. Wilson : Mr. Deputy Speaker, follow that outline. With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate.
The Opposition have had two purposes in the debate. The first was to remove any misapprehension that it was
Column 149some sort of technical debate--a mere mechanistic process to sort out a few little local difficulties round the edges. It was no such thing. There are still a great many questions to be answered and I and my hon. Friends have signposted them. I shall leave the Minister as much time as possible to answer them, but I appreciate that he will not answer them all and I look to him for an undertaking that he will deal with what he has acknowledged to be complex questions. I hope that he will write to the hon. Members who have raised them and try to give us some clarification before another barrel-load of amendments turn up in the Lords in a week's or a month's time. Secondly, we make no apology for setting the debate in the wider context. The measure need not arise. It arises only as a by-product of what the Government are doing to the railways in general. Their measures are unwanted and have little public and very little political support. Without that fundamental interference in the workings of the railways, there would be no need to break up the railways pension fund and
Mr. Bayley : Before my hon. Friend sits down, although I know that time is short, will he reply to one of the points made by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who seemed to suggest to the House that there had been some bipartisan defence of the pensioners' rights ? Will my hon. Friend confirm that in the Standing Committee which considered the Railways Bill we spent more time debating pensions than any other matter and that in not one of the Divisions did a Conservative member of the Committee vote with our party to support pensioners ? Indeed, on many of those occasions the Liberal party did not vote with us either.
Mr. Wilson : I shall come to the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) in a moment. Let me first finish the sentence. We make it absolutely clear that none of this would arise if it were not for the generality of what the Government are doing to the railways. What they are doing is unwanted. We regard it as despicable that the pensioners' worries and fears to which the Government's manoeuvre has given rise should be a by -product of that exercise.
I now come briefly to the hon. Member for Eltham. It is difficult to imagine a degree of brevity that is not over-generous. In a debate on the serious matter of the future of pensioners, their fears and concerns, their well-being, security and so on, the only Back-Bench speech from the entire Conservative party was an incoherent ramble in which the only interest of the hon. Member for Eltham seemed to be in circumventing your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so as to get on to subjects which were extraneous to the debate. It speaks volumes about the quality of intellect on the Benches behind the Minister, never mind what is on the Front Bench, that that was the best that could be put forward in a debate of this nature. Not one attempt was made at a rational defence or justification of what had been done.
What my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Bayley) says is true. In the Standing Committee, pensions matters were dealt with at inordinate length. All the probing was done. All the objections from pensioners flooded in. As my colleagues who were members of that Committee and the Minister will remember, the only attempt by a Conservative member of the Committee to exert any pressure on the Government came from the late
Column 150Stephen Milligan, the then hon. Member for Eastleigh. Although he did not vote for any of the amendments, he at least made an effort because he had a large constituency interest in that matter. If the record of this debate is read nowhere else, by heaven it should be read in Eastleigh because of the cavalier way in which the Government and the Minister have been prepared to treat the interests of railway pensioners. The fact that we have had this sort of debate at this time of night, in which not one Tory Back Bencher has been prepared to defend what is being done--and the fact that the railway pensioners' interests are being treated as a by-product and side-effect of the other legislation-- will have been noted in Eastleigh. It will continue to be noted there, and in every other community in Britain where there are railway pensioners--and a hell of a lot of constituencies are covered by that term.
Mr. Freeman : I, too, pay tribute to what Stephen Milligan achieved in his brief time in the House, and to the distinguished contributions that he made to the debate on the Railways Bill. I look forward to a Conservative Member being returned at the Eastleigh by-election.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) spoke for 19 minutes, and failed to adduce a single argument against the orders. There is no point of disagreement. Has the hon. Gentleman got one ? [Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman has not raised a single point of disagreement between the Government and the trustees.
I say to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) that I take exception to her remark that I had contempt for the industrial work force. I do take exception to that.
Ms Glenda Jackson : Will the Minister give way ?
Mr. Freeman : No, I will not give way to the hon. Lady. For the past six months, the Government have negotiated in good faith with the trustees and with the trade unions, and we have reached agreement.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North has left me four minutes to answer nine points. I shall deal with them, and there is no need for me to write to hon. Members because the answers are brief and clear. I made it plain during the proceedings in Committee that we were not to extend the indefeasible right to new entrants to the industry, and I made the arguments at great length.
We will amend clause 8(c) to mirror our agreement on the seamless transfer of benefits. We will also deal with clauses 13, 14 and 16, as I made plain in my opening remarks.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate asked about the solvency guarantee. Let me make it plain that the Government will not take out from the pension fund a single penny piece. Where the Government honour the solvency guarantee, those payments will go to support our commitment that pensions should be index linked.
Let us not forget that railwaymen and women have an excellent pension scheme. Not only do they have their pensions index linked ; they have the scheme's solvency guaranteed from the Government. They also have--as they have had for many years--the right to 40 per cent. of any surpluses. That is an excellent pension scheme.
Column 151I repeat what I said at the outset about the solvency guarantee payments which go into the pension fund. No solvency guarantee payment will ever be repatriated to the Government while the fund is in existence. Any payments back would stay as a special reserve for the benefit of all pensioners.
We have had a number of speeches from members of the RMT, including the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for Streatham (Mr. Hill) and for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell). I must say that they were unfair in their descriptions of the negotiations and discussions that we had with the RMT. The RMT is not a trustee of the pension fund, but the Government have gone out of their way to deal with the unions with utmost respect. I have described the several rounds of meetings which we have had with the RMT. Which detailed points remain unanswered with regard to the RMT ? There are no outstanding issues. I explained clearly at the outset of the debate that, on 5 May, the trustees had met--including representatives of three unions--and had agreed on all the points which were negotiated until then, with one exception : the treatment of deficits and surpluses. What happened ? The Government accepted the compromise proposed by the trustees. Therefore, so far as we are concerned, all the points raised by the trustees and the unions have been dealt with. If points of drafting detail are outstanding, I have given the House a commitment that when we deal with the rules--the memorandum and the articles of association--in detail, and when we lay further orders, we will certainly pick them up.
I do not accept the argument of the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) that we have not made time available. We have been reasonable, not unreasonable, and have reached agreement after months of discussion.
I pay tribute not only to the trustees and officers of the trustees, but also to the unions for their constructive contribution, which has been notably lacking tonight.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate about rules 16A and 16B, the Government and the Secretary of State have no power to wind up the closed section of the pension fund for a period lasting until 2013
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Order [19 May].
Question put :--
The House divided : Ayes 213, Noes 170 .
Division No. 256] [11.45 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)