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Mr. David Willetts (Havant): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I begin by making it clear that I make no attempt to evade responsibility. Everyone involved must take his or her share of responsibility. We accept the ombudsman's finding that there was maladministration. It took far too long to start giving people the advice that they are entitled to expect on the changes to SERPS provisions for widows. As a result of that failure to give the right advice, many people have not made the alternative arrangements that they otherwise would have made.

We regret what happened, and much of it happened on our watch. It should not have happened. There were some attempts to give the correct advice. I have the "Benefits Information" guide of May 1995, which makes the position clear. However, there are worrying cases of people still receiving the wrong advice as late as 1999. Indeed, the National Audit Office report, which makes damning reading, expresses concern that from November 1999 to

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10 January 2000 contradictory lines were taken in official correspondence and in other sources of information about the legal position after 5 April 2000.

The NAO report--

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Oh!

Mr. Willetts: This is a very important point about the advice that was given. I want the Secretary of State to promise that somewhere, someone in some benefit office is still not giving out-of-date information to people who are asking about their SERPS position.

The NAO report goes on to discuss the 3,500 written queries to Ministers where the Department should have provided an update on the situation of those who had expressed their concerns. It states:


Was it the Secretary of State who decided not to respond to the 3,500 questions? Was it his colleague, the Minister of State? Was the decision made by officials? What is the Secretary of State's answer to that specific charge in the NAO report?

We accept that there is a serious problem of maladministration. However, will the Secretary of State accept--[Interruption.] As I have said, we very much regret that. I am asking the right hon. Gentleman to accept something in return, which is the policy that the Labour party opposed when it was in opposition and the Conservative Government's original policy, by which the Government now stand. Will he confirm that the Government have no plans to change the 50 per cent. formula for widows' entitlement to SERPS, which was introduced in the 1986 legislation? Indeed, will he confirm that they carry that formula through into the state second pension in legislation that is now before the House? Will he confirm also that the only change to widows' SERPS entitlements introduced by the Government has been a further cut in those entitlements as part of the Government's wider cuts in widows' benefits?

Many Members on both sides of the House have been approached by constituents who phoned the Department of Social Security to check on their future SERPS entitlement and were given the wrong advice. They will surely expect to be covered by the right hon. Gentleman's scheme. That is the crucial issue, but he has ducked it today. I remind him of the assurances of his ministerial colleagues during the past few months, both in another place and in this place, about compensation. In another place, the Under-Secretary of State, Baroness Hollis of Heigham, said:


The then Minister with responsibility for pensions, who is now the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, went even further when he said:


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I ask the Secretary of State to promise not to breach the undertakings which Ministers in his Department have already given to the House and to another place. If people say that they asked for advice and they then did nothing because of the advice that they received, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that as proof enough?

Ministers have admitted that the DSS will not have proof of the advice given because its records are destroyed after six months. Therefore, the Secretary of State's scheme, the details of which we await, must not ask pensioners to do the impossible.

The statement has been delayed from before Christmas--we know from the NAO when it was originally due to be made--because the Secretary of State has been fighting an unsuccessful battle with the Treasury on precisely that point. That is why it is so important that the right hon. Gentleman sticks to the promises that were made by his colleagues.

Does not the approach set out today contrast strikingly with that adopted by Ministers to private personal pensions? Private pension providers were presumed guilty unless they could prove that they were innocent; now, the Government intend to regulate themselves far more leniently than they have regulated others.

The DSS is acquiring an unenviable record for getting things wrong in the first place, which is bad enough, and then compounding the problem by making a mess of getting things right. We ask for a simple assurance from the Secretary of State that the widows and the people planning for their pension who have followed today's announcement will not be let down because of another DSS mess.

Mr. Darling: I am sorry that the Opposition spokesman has struck such a tone, because the matter is extremely serious. Many people in this country have been caused great distress by something which, as he acknowledges, happened largely during the period for which Conservative Ministers were responsible.

The hon. Gentleman made several points that I shall answer specifically. He referred to the mis-selling of personal private pensions, but I can tell the House what that problem has in common with the inherited SERPS problem: the Tories did nothing about either. Twenty Tory Ministers, including the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor, served in the DSS during the period in which the problems originated, but they did nothing about them. We are now sorting things out and providing to those who lost out the same measure of redress as we ask the private sector to provide to those who were mis-sold pensions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the changes being made through the state second pension. I will happily deal with that matter at great length when the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill is reported to the House. Suffice it to say that, because of our reforms, the state second pension extends the rights that people get under SERPS.

The hon. Gentleman's central point is an important matter of concern to all hon. Members: the question of what standards are required and what the public require.

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Let me repeat that the guiding principle is that people who have lost out will get redress. We shall work out the details of the scheme in consultation with the NAO and the ombudsman; that scheme will be laid before the House so that all hon. Members will have an opportunity to comment on it.

We have a clear obligation to establish a system that provides redress, just as there is an obligation on individuals to tell us the truth about what happened. People will be required to give us information on how they were misled when they make a claim, and we shall, of course, ask them questions about that when we process the claim. However, if there is no documentary evidence, it will be for the Department to challenge or disprove the claim. I hope that that makes the position absolutely clear. We recognise the difficulties caused by the fact that many people will not have documentary evidence, and we are determined to be fair to the people who have lost out.

Finally, I made it clear in my statement that I accept full responsibility for anything that goes on during the course of this Government in the Department for which I am responsible. The mess was created by the Conservatives when they were in power, but I take full responsibility, down to the last word and detail of the scheme, for trying to sort out the mess for the benefit of many pensioners.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Does he agree that it is important that we make a distinction between the gang opposite and their incompetence and the way in which we shall respond to their incompetence? Does he accept that, because there is such chaos in the Department that he must now set up a separate unit to deal with the issue, nobody outside will accept the word of the Department or that unit against the word of our constituents who say that they asked for advice, that they were given bad advice and that they acted accordingly?


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