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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language.

Mr. Davies: I am using the word "you" in the impersonal sense. If you prefer, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I could use the third person impersonal and say "one". However, I find it more natural to use "you" in the impersonal sense.

Means-testing will irreparably damage savings. The majority of people on or below average incomes--I think that average earnings are £15,000 to £18,000--will have to consider carefully whether they should save in those circumstances. If the Government desire people to save, they will have only two choices: the first technique is compulsion, which they have rightly rejected--and we reject also--and the second is to bamboozle those on modest earnings to save modest amounts. That is the exercise in which the Government have engaged so disgracefully this afternoon--and that is an exercise that we reject.

6.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms): The whole House will have enjoyed this speech by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). It was a bravura performance delivered with the verve and gusto that we associate with the hon. Gentleman and that we all enjoy--but that might also be described kindly as displaying a light grasp of the details of the Government's proposals.

I first became aware of the hon. Gentleman's light grasp of the details when he and I were interviewed separately on Radio Newcastle about the problems with the NIRS2 computer system, which have affected many pensioners around the country. Many hon. Members will not have had the opportunity to hear the interview that the hon. Gentleman gave, but it certainly merits a wider audience. The contract for the computer system was signed by the previous Government in 1995, with a view to the system being up and running by February 1997. Therefore, I was intrigued to hear the hon. Gentleman tell the presenter on Radio Newcastle on 10 December last year:

The presenter gently pointed out to the hon. Gentleman that it was the Conservatives who had brought in the contractor, to which he responded:

    "This is quite absurd. If the Government are saying this then they really, absolutely plumbed the depths . . . This is the most sensational view--this is the most extraordinary dereliction of responsibility on their part".

The presenter made one more half-hearted attempt to point out the facts, to which the hon. Gentleman replied:

    "No, no, no, no, no."

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    The correct answer was "Yes"--but that in no way detracted from our enjoyment of the hon. Gentleman's spirited contribution on that occasion, or on this.

It is also true that the hon. Gentleman's cavalier disregard for the Government's actual proposals in no way detracted from our enjoyment of the hon. Gentleman's swashbuckling denunciation of them this afternoon. However, it is important to refer to what is really in the Green Paper. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the clear statement on page 42 of that document regarding carers. The position of carers is greatly enhanced by our proposal regarding the state second pension. Our proposals pose no threat to group personal pensions and nothing undermines them. A proper collectively run scheme may be more attractive to many people, but nothing in our proposals undermines what is currently possible under personal pension arrangements.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Minister started his speech by having a little fun about the NIRS2 computer system. Perhaps he would like to explain to pensioners why, back in September, the Secretary of State said that the problems would be sorted out in two weeks, why nothing else was heard from him until January, and why, last week, the Minister said that it will be many months before the difficulties are resolved. Regardless of how the problems occurred, should he not have done people a favour and eased their worries by telling them what was going on?

Mr. Timms: We have been absolutely frank about what has been happening throughout this process. We have been picking up the pieces and sorting out the problems that we inherited from the previous Government. I wish to comment about another issue that was picked up frequently in the debate.

Mr. Leigh: This Government keep blaming the previous Government. Has the Minister read the National Audit Office report, published in May 1997, which says that the procurement was "well managed"--they are its words. It also says that the shortlisting process was well managed to produce three credible bidders. The problems have originated since this Government were elected.

Mr. Timms: No, no. [Interruption.] I have read the report. The fact is that the system of commission had to be operational by February 1997, but parts of it are becoming operational only now. We have had to sort out the mess.

I want to comment on an issue that a number of hon. Members have mentioned, and of which the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford makes much--means-testing. The state second pension will be a 100 per cent. contributory scheme. The whole point of what we are proposing is to ensure that--unlike the position that we inherited from the previous Government, where people could work and pay contributions throughout their working lives and still retire directly on to means-tested income support--the state second pension means that everybody in such a position retires with a pension above the minimum income guarantee level, which will itself be uprated over time, in line with earnings.

This is an imaginative, effective and affordable programme, which is why it has been so widely welcomed in the pensions industry and elsewhere. There is, of course, a pension policy that would generate

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means-testing on a massive scale--basic pension plus. I was intrigued that the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) tentatively expressed some support for that policy, but we do not know whether it is still the official policy of the Conservative party. We have not been informed of that this afternoon, and it would be helpful if we could be told.

If the Opposition are arguing that the least well-off should not share in rising prosperity, and that the minimum income guarantee should not be uprated over time in line with earnings, let them say so. That is not the view of Labour Members, nor is it the view among pensioners.

We have had an interesting debate and a number of thoughtful contributions were made. The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) made some interesting points on the future of the basic state pension, and I am grateful to him for drawing attention to the review of saving limits for the minimum income guarantee. I agree that that is the right thing to do. Winter fuel payments have been popular among pensioners and I certainly support them, as do the great majority of people.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made a thoughtful and constructive speech. He told us that it would be his last off-message speech; I am not sure what he meant by that. I want to comment on a couple of points that he made. He will agree that the effect of our proposals will be to reduce the number of people who would end up on means-tested benefit when they retire and so reduce the problem, which he highlighted, of people feeling that it is not worth saving.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that we need to strengthen the arrangements for occupational pensions and the Green Paper, and the subsequent consultative paper, contain important proposals to achieve that. On the question of churn, which he raised, the Financial Services Authority is aware of the problem and will be introducing proposals to address it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) did the House a great service by reminding hon. Members of the record of the previous Government. He also elicited a helpful explanation of why so few Conservative Members were present during the debate. Apparently they were at a Conservative party rally. For quite a long time, there were more Liberal Democrat Members than Conservative Back Benchers in the Chamber, even though the Conservatives initiated the debate. Indeed, at one time, no Conservative Front Bencher was present.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith) made some telling points about the position of many pensioners. She was absolutely right to welcome the proposed link with earnings for the minimum income guarantee and right to spotlight the problem facing self-employed people, which stakeholder pensions address.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) for highlighting the work that is being done in the pilot schemes to encourage people to take up the minimum income guarantee and to draw attention to the benefits of stakeholder pensions for the self-employed.

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Let me conclude by summarising our proposals. The position we have inherited is that we are heading for a situation where, in 50 years, one in three people retiring will go straight on to income support. Today's pensioners are too often without security. As a result of the pensions mis-selling scandal presided over by the previous Government, people do not trust the system and too few people who could afford a funded pension do not have one.

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