Previous SectionIndexHome Page


29. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What recent representations he has received on the level of retirement pensions. [79757]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms): About 170 of the 550 responses to the pensions Green Paper consultation exercise comment on the level of the state retirement pension.

Mr. Amess: Is the Minister aware that I am inundated by representations from senior citizens in my constituency who tell me that they are now living in poverty as a result

19 Apr 1999 : Column 569

of this rotten Government's policies? Will the Minister address the point that he failed to take up earlier on the level of savings? Will he also tell the House how the Government will fund the second state pension?

Mr. Timms: On the hon. Gentleman's final point, the Green Paper sets out fully how the Government will fund our pension proposals. They are affordable, they are durable and they have been widely welcomed. I hope that when he receives representations from his constituents he draws their attention to the minimum income guarantee, which took effect last week. That has already led to several hundred people having a boost in their incomes.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the beginning of Question Time that we are looking again at savings limits governing the receipt of income support for those pensioners with modest savings who are at present just outside the scope of the minimum income guarantee.

19 Apr 1999 : Column 570

We are considering the possibility of bringing them within it by changing the limits that we inherited from the previous Government.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): The combination of the minimum pension guarantee with council tax benefit and housing benefit will ensure that an individual must save £80,000 to be better off than someone who has saved nothing at all. The Minister said earlier that that figure is inaccurate. Can he say what is the accurate figure?

Mr. Timms: It is an inaccurate figure, because it does not allow for the income that people will receive anyway in retirement, but we are still waiting for an explanation from Conservative Members about why they want the minimum income guarantee to be uprated only in line with prices. What do they have against people on income support? That is what their constituents will want to know.

19 Apr 1999 : Column 571

Fiona Jones

3.30 pm

Madam Speaker: I have a brief statement to make. The House will recall that on 22 March, following the conviction of the hon. Member for Newark in the Crown court on a charge of making a false declaration as to election expenses, I stated that the seat had been vacated in accordance with law.

The House will also be aware that the Court of Appeal has since quashed that conviction. The Court of Appeal, however, considered that it had no jurisdiction to go on to rule on whether or not the hon. Lady recovers her seat following the success of her appeal.

This is an unprecedented situation. On the one hand, there are considerations of natural justice. The conviction has been quashed; should not the vacancy also be overturned? On the other hand, whatever the outcome of the appeal, it is the interpretation of the Representation of the People Act 1983 which is crucial.

It is for the courts, not for the House, to interpret the law. I have therefore asked the Attorney-General, on behalf of the House, to seek an authoritative declaration from the High Court on the true construction of the 1983 Act. The court will be invited to make a declaration that, following the decision of the Court of Appeal to quash her conviction, Fiona Jones is entitled to resume her seat.

I understand that the application is being made today. I hope very much that it may be disposed of as speedily as is consistent with fairness and with certainty.

May I add in the interests of Members in all parts of this House that, once this matter has been resolved, I think it would be desirable for this part of our statute law to be reviewed to see whether it cannot be expressed more clearly, so as to avoid this kind of situation in future.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw) rose--

Madam Speaker: Is it a point of order?

Mr. Ashton: Yes. I should like to ask a question. You have obviously laid down a precedent today, Madam

19 Apr 1999 : Column 572

Speaker, and I am not disagreeing with it or raising any matter arising out it, but can you tell us whether the issue is still sub judice? The Tories have said publicly in Newark that they have withdrawn their candidate; so have the Liberals, and they do not want a by-election.

There is obviously a great deal of stuff to be debated, which the media and everybody else are interested in, but we do not know where we stand with the sub judice rule. The appeal took only 12 minutes and the Lord Chief Justice said--as you said, Madam Speaker--that, now that the conviction is quashed, so are the consequences, and he sees no reason why this case should be different from any other. Is the issue debatable anywhere or is it still sub judice?

Madam Speaker: It cannot be sub judice until a date for the hearing has been set down, but I think that, in the best interests of the hon. Lady, Fiona Jones, and of the House, the application to the High Court, which was made on our behalf by the Attorney-General about an hour and a half ago, should now proceed. We should leave it to the High Court to come to us with its decision.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I fully endorse your ruling on this issue? However, I understand from the ruling of the court--as I read it in the newspapers--that the court does not wish to confuse its role with that of Parliament. While I fully endorse your ruling, would not it be appropriate for this House to express an opinion, after a brief debate?

Madam Speaker: I understand that view, but I suggest that now that those steps have been taken on behalf of the House and in accordance with the rule of law, which we must uphold, we should await the High Court's decision. I am sure that that is in the best interests of all of us at this time.

19 Apr 1999 : Column 573


[Relevant documents: Minutes of Evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 14th April 1999 (HC 188-ii).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

Madam Speaker: In view of the number of hon. Members who want to speak in this important debate, Back-Bench speeches will be limited throughout to 10 minutes.

3.35 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): Before I turn to the matter of today's debate, may I offer the House the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who had wished to be present at this debate but is currently attending to the Northern Ireland peace talks? I am sure that the whole House wishes him success in that effort.

As we meet for this debate, a second wave of refugees is crossing from Kosovo into the neighbouring countries. Like all those who have made it into Macedonia, Albania or Montenegro in the past three weeks, none of them wanted to leave. All of them have been forced by fear to flee the terror and the brutality that has been visited upon Kosovo by President Milosevic.

Thousands of them have now been interviewed by the remaining members of the Kosovo verification mission, or by one of the United Nations agencies working in the refugee camps. Consistently they tell the same story: of Serb special police ordering them at the point of a gun to leave their homes within five minutes; of villages being burnt as they left; sometimes, of young men being separated from their families and disappearing; occasionally, of young women separated and subjected to systematic rape.

Some made their way on foot over the hillsides. Among them were pregnant women, some of whom gave birth on the journey under the sky. Others were forced on to the shuttle trains that plied back and forth from Pristina to the Macedonian border--2,000 to 3,000 per train, all standing, all too close to breathe in comfort, for a slow, seven-hour journey without water or sanitation.

We are witnessing in Kosovo the largest forced deportation in Europe since the time of Stalin or Hitler. This exodus is not the result of spontaneous acts of brutality; it was planned in Belgrade and is co-ordinated from Belgrade. That does not acquit those in the field from their own responsibility for the crimes that they commit. It is no defence against a war crime to plead that one was only following orders.

Tomorrow, I shall meet Judge Arbour, the chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal. I shall promise her Britain's full co-operation in bringing to justice those who have stained Kosovo with ethnic cleansing and genocide. I shall be handing over a dossier of material with information on multiple atrocities from the past three weeks of killing and ethnic cleansing. I shall pass to her all the names that we have of the commanders of the army and police units who have been present when those crimes took place. I shall share with her our

19 Apr 1999 : Column 574

photographs of the recently disturbed earth where we fear mass graves may be found. I shall offer her any information that we have that could help her to pursue the chain of command for those crimes all the way to the top in Belgrade.

Next Section

IndexHome Page