Mr. Darling: No, I do not agree with my right hon. Friend on that point. The basic problem with the Department of Social Security over the years is that it did not have a clear enough focus on its client groups--children, people of working age and pensioners. The Benefits Agency in particular, which is the organisation under discussion, has a wide focus because of the varied needs of all the types of people who come through its doors.
In a new organisation created to deal solely with pensions and pensioners, the staff will be totally focused on pensioners' needs. As my right hon. Friend knows, we have some excellent staff in the Department of Social Security, who sometimes have to work with policies introduced by politicians which are not easy to implement. Nothing in my remarks was intended as criticism of the general quality of our staff.
We must make sure that we have a scheme in place that is workable and fair, and that provides redress for the people who lost out. We also need to make sure that the DSS and its agencies are reorganised to be better focused on the people whom they are meant to serve. That is what I am determined to see through.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the pensioners who ring the Department and write letters are atypical, and that most pensioners do not ring up and do not go to get leaflets--they just carry on. They assume that if their rights are to be slashed, someone will tell them.
Can the Secretary of State say whether he told pensioners that their rights would be slashed in good time for them to do something about it? If he and his predecessors did not do that, how can he justify going ahead with the cuts now--the Tory cuts that he would have opposed?
The delay until October 2002 is a fig leaf. Can the Secretary of State confirm that his own statement proves that the deferral to 2002 is an irrelevance to most pensioners? For a younger pensioner, as long as her husband lives for two years now, the deferral is irrelevant. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that people who have reached pension age, provided that their husbands survive a few more years, will face the full cut and may never have been told about it?
Given the healthy state of the national insurance fund and a £3 billion surplus of revenue over expenditure next year alone, could not the right hon. Gentleman have persuaded his former friends in the Treasury to allocate that to Britain's widows? Is it not time that the Secretary of State and his colleagues stopped being the Treasury's poodles and started standing up for pensioners?
Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman has an exceedingly short memory. With regard to the national insurance surplus, he spent that two debates ago. I forget what he spent it on--some other pension provision--so, if he had had his way, the national insurance surplus would have been spent already. It is not available a second time round.
I said that the hon. Gentleman had a short memory. Only yesterday, he tabled an early-day motion calling on us to provide compensation for those pensioners. We are providing a scheme for redress for pensioners. Only 24 hours later, he has forgotten that that is what he asked for.
Let us go back to first principles. The principle must be that if the Government give people the wrong information, they must face the consequences and provide them with redress. That is precisely what we are doing. We are doing so whether people are still working or have already retired. If they received the wrong information, they will all be eligible to receive redress.
The hon. Gentleman must remember that there are many people now working and many who have retired who did know about the changes and made alternative provision, for which they had to pay. He would say that they need not have spent all that money. If he is saying that he is in favour of deferral, he must bear in mind the fact that I said in my statement--the hon. Gentleman nods. That is today's policy, so I shall deal with it. Now he shakes his head. That policy lasted five seconds.
Through deferral, the problem is merely postponed. That means that the widow of a man who dies in 10 or 14 years would still lose out. Unlike the Liberals, who do not have to face any of these problems--it is all pretty theoretical, as far as they are concerned--we are facing up
Madam Speaker: Order. I should now like short questions. Several hon. Members want to ask questions, and I want to safeguard the business of the House for the rest of the day. I should also like brisk answers from the Secretary of State.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): If we were considering local government maladministration, a surcharge would have been imposed on those responsible for the problems. Those responsible for the problems that we are considering are getting away scot free.
I welcome the postponement in implementing the policy to 2002. Putting aside the way in which the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) made his point, would it be possible for the policy to be reconsidered? Many of us believe that the Tories were wrong to do what they did in the first place.
Mr. Darling: The policy change was announced 14 years ago. It is not possible to turn the clock back to the world of 1986. Many people have made provision in good faith as a result of the law since 1986. If any Government turn the clock back, they will create a new group of losers. Most people would find that unacceptable.
Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in informing me about the statement in advance. I have had the opportunity of reading only the Parliamentary Commissioner's report. I support the Secretary of State's statement, and I take responsibility for my period of office from 1981-87.
On the parliamentary process, will the Secretary of State confirm that the changes were set out in a Government White Paper in December 1985, that they were outlined in a statement that I made to the House on 16 December 1985, and that they were fully debated in lengthy Committee proceedings in 1986? In accepting responsibility, will the Secretary of State confirm that the parliamentary process was openly followed?
Will the Secretary of State also confirm that, while the Government are deferring the change that I proposed in 1986, they are continuing with the basic policy that I introduced then? My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) pressed the Secretary of State to confirm that.
Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his first comment. I wrote to all my predecessors, including the former Prime Minister, who was also a Minister in the former Department of Health and Social Security, because I believed that it was right to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman would not have seen the National Audit Office report or the ombudsman's report because their publication is not a matter for me. The reports are rightly made directly to the House.
There was a lot of publicity about the changes when they were made. The first leaflet that the Department of Health and Social Security produced was right. I tried to explain to the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) that many people knew about the changes and planned accordingly. Paragraph 1.12 of the National Audit Office report states that pension professionals, who advise people, also knew about the changes. That is our problem. Some people knew about them and acted accordingly, but others who picked up leaflets published by the DHSS and the BA did not know.
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Given NIRS2 and other problems, are there any more ticking time bombs, which cost billions of pounds, left by the previous Administration? How long does my right hon. Friend envisage that it will take to settle claims once they are made? I welcome the new pensions department. Can we at last get rid of the question on the income support claim form for pensioners that asks whether they are pregnant?
Mr. Darling: On the latter point, I certainly hope so. Indeed, the steps that I have announced this afternoon whereby all DSS leaflets will be externally audited will improve matters. There are two reasons for that: they need to be right and they need to be readable. I suppose that it is conceivable--to coin a phrase--that a pensioner could be pregnant, but probably unlikely. However, I shall certainly consider that.
My hon. Friend asks whether there are any more ticking time bombs. When the problem came to light--I was first made aware of it at the end of 1998--I asked the Department to read all the leaflets that are now being produced to ensure that they are accurate and up to date. I am as satisfied as I can be that that is the case, but I do not suppose that I am any different from any of my predecessors as Secretary of State for Social Security in that I spend rather more of my day than I would like dealing with time bombs that may not be ticking, but look like they might tick in future.