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Mr. Darling: I was thinking of some of the other problems that we inherited--NIRS2, the benefit payment card and the mis-selling of SERPS. I have a long list of messes to clear up as a result of the Tory Government.
Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I welcome the Secretary of State's deferment of the change in the SERPS scheme and his undertaking to enact the National Audit Office recommendations and any subsequent Public Accounts Committee recommendations, but he will be aware that the ombudsman and the NAO expressed reservations in their reports about the second stage--the protected rights compensation. Can he answer three points? Can he confirm that the costing for his proposed scheme assumes only one third take-up among
Mr. Darling: The right hon. Gentleman raises three points. The NAO and the ombudsman properly said that the redress provided is a matter for Parliament, not them. They have both said that they would like to comment on it and I made it very clear in my statement that I want them to do so. I shall listen to any recommendations that they want to make because it is important to take on board what the Department's external auditor--which is what the NAO is--and the ombudsman have to say.
On costings, I said earlier that the minimum cost is £2.5 billion. It could be more, depending on the number of people who tell us that they were misled. We shall not know the position for some time, but my guess is that, during the year, especially with the helpline opening, we shall get a better feel for exactly how many people were misled. The scheme has to be confirmed by the House so that it is debatable. That is a matter for the usual channels.
Finally, we would clearly want to review the scheme continuously. I shall reflect on what the right hon. Gentleman has said and I am not giving him any undertakings. I hope that we are all trying to do the best that we can for those people, and Members--Front-Bench or otherwise--should try to make sure that we have a scheme that works and put right what went very wrong for a large number of people.
Mr. Darling: Perhaps I should explain to the House and my hon. Friend that the NAO was asked to consider these matters because it can read all relevant papers, including those given to Ministers in the previous Government, and the advice. He will know that, by convention and quite rightly, I cannot see the advice given to Conservative Ministers, but the NAO and the ombudsman did see it. However, they do not say that such and such information was in a minute sent to the Secretary of State.
I am now remedying the problem. Three weeks ago, I announced major management changes in the Department to streamline it and make it more effective, and today I am going a step further with the new pensions organisation. As for who wrote what and when, we asked the NAO to investigate because it is external to the Department and acts without fear or favour. I am happy to accept its recommendations, but I cannot see all the papers that may have been circulated in 1987.
It is obvious that those who have written documentary evidence that they were misled about their entitlement will have a bang-to-rights case. However, is the right hon. Gentleman saying that merely stating that they had discussed the matter with a benefits officer, or had discussed it on the telephone--presumably the DSS could not disprove that, as it does not keep records for very long--would entitle my constituents to preserved rights?
Mr. Darling: As I said a moment ago, we shall present to the House proposals giving details of the procedures that people will have to follow, and the scrutiny that the Department will conduct to ensure that claims are well founded. All that will be clearly set out, so that people will know exactly where they stand.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): The scheme that my right hon. Friend has described may well deal with those who have been misinformed, but I am less sure that it deals with those who have not been informed of the changes made in 1986. At any point, were those who might have been affected posted clear information by the previous Government explaining the implications of the change?
Mr. Darling: I do not think that any Government have written routinely to all citizens telling them about changes they have made to any law, let alone this one. When my hon. Friend thinks about it, he will realise that that would be a massive undertaking.
Let me return my hon. Friend to first principles. In the Government or the private sector, when someone does something as a result of which someone else loses out because they could not make arrangements, redress must be provided, and that is what we are doing. We are providing redress on the ground that some people went to the Department and were given the wrong information. That is the principle, but my hon. Friend suggests that we should go beyond it. I am saying that, when the Government give wrong information, they clearly have a responsibility to provide redress.
Secondly--this, surely, is a critical aspect of the preserved rights scheme--how will the Secretary of State ensure that everyone who might be eligible applies? Will he write to everyone who might be eligible, just as he demanded that people should be written to when the private pension mis-selling scandal arose? Will he also confirm that there will be no time limit? Will someone who is widowed in 2005, and has not at that point had the rights preserved, still have a chance to do so?
Mr. Darling: If the hon. Gentleman has read the reports from the NAO and the ombudsman, he will have seen that both ask that we spend some time doing a number of things to ensure that the scheme works. One is to discuss the publicity with them. The Government are determined to ensure that the scheme gets the widest possible publicity, including advertising. We will consult the NAO, the ombudsman and other interested bodies to find out what else we need to do.
The second thing comes back to a familiar theme. It is important to remember what the principle is: where the Department has given the wrong information, we provide people with redress. It follows, therefore, that we need to do everything that we possibly can to draw that to the public's attention.
May I ask one or two practical questions? Do those constituents of ours who have already written to complain need to submit a formal application? Is there a time by which those applications need to be submitted? Indeed, will there be a limitation period for submitting applications for claims by constituents generally?