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Mr. Darling: About 3,000 people have written to the Department or contacted it. We have a note of their names and addresses. We will write to them in the next few days. It will be made clear to them and, indeed, to the population at large that, once the scheme is ready to receive claims, there will be further advertising telling people where to write, what information to include and how we intend to process it. Included in that will be the dates by which we want to get the applications in.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Can the Secretary of State confirm that those people who did not know that the Government had made changes in 1986 and who at no point during the past 14 years knew that the changes had been made will effectively be excluded from the preserved rights scheme? By dint of not knowing, they did not pick up the telephone, look at the leaflet or write a letter. Many people outside the House will find it hard to understand why they are being excluded from his scheme.
Angela Smith (Basildon): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which obviously concentrated on the practical and financial aspects, but does he accept that, when people retire, or make provision for their spouse after their death, one of the things that they need most in life is security and certainty? The catalogue of Conservative horrors has created greater fear, worry and uncertainty for many people. Many who come to our surgeries are very upset and worried. Does he share my frustration that, although we have heard the Conservative party say that it accepts responsibility, it has at no stage said sorry?
Mr. Darling: On the latter point, that is something that most of us are well used to, so perhaps we are not as sensitive to it as others, but it is better to concentrate on what we will do to put matters right. I make just two points. First, we are making changes to SERPS and the state second pension that will mean that people who are on low pay--say, about £6,000 a year--will get about £54 a week through SERPS, instead of £14 a week, which is a big change.
Secondly, shortly--over the next few years--we will be able to provide everyone in this country with an annual pension statement, which will tell them exactly how much they are retiring on. That will be one of the single biggest ways in which to give people reassurance. They will be able to see in black and white what they are getting from the state, from their occupational or stakeholder pension. If any future Government come along who are like the last lot over there and start slashing things, privatising basic state pensions, or whatever the latest policy is, people will know about it very soon.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Am I right in thinking that the right hon. Gentleman plans to do something about the sins of commission but not the sins of omission? He will do something about actively misleading, but not about failing to give proper advice. Will he now give an answer to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride)? Is it correct that that assertion, in the absence of any contrary proof from the Department, will be sufficient evidence for the scheme? What will be the position of someone who can prove that they were misled but second hand--in other words not directly from the Department but from some intermediary who has taken advice from the Department?
Mr. Darling: I have just told the House that the details of the scheme will be worked out after consultation and will come before the House. I have also made it clear that all claims will be scrutinised. As I said in my reply to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the Department
Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, however outrageous the behaviour of the Conservative party when in government, it was entirely consistent with the culture of fraud and mis-selling in the pensions industry which I believe that the Conservatives deliberately engineered during the 1980s? Will my right hon. Friend consider that there will be some problems with pensioners proving that they were misinformed or misled? My right hon. Friend mentioned the guidelines. How soon will they be produced? What definitive criteria will they contain and to what extent will it be a question of individual social security officers adjudicating on individual cases?
Mr. Darling: On the latter point, I want to avoid creating a further problem by producing guidelines that are so general that we get into a host of other problems. The rules and regulations under which the inherited SERPS schemes will work will be as strict as possible so that all our staff know how they operate. I repeat that we want to discuss the guidelines with the NAO and the ombudsman, as they have requested, so that we get them right. Also, we are writing today to many organisations, such as Help the Aged and Age Concern, to ensure that the scheme is operated fairly so that we can put right the problems that so many people face. We will make every effort to ensure that the guidelines are right. Getting them right is rather more important than trying to rush forward with rules and regulations that do not work. I want to take time to get it right because that is precisely what the ombudsman and the NAO are asking us to do.
My right hon. Friend's announcement about the new organisation for pensioners is a significant move. Will that include all work for pensioners such as state pensions, SERPS, second state pensions and minimum income guarantee? How soon will it be set up and will it be able to liaise with other Departments and organisations such as the national health service and local government so that benefits work together properly for pensioners and so that security and service really start to mean something?
Mr. Darling: The pensions organisation will be responsible for pensions and pensions policy operations. It will also be responsible for the benefits that go to older people, including the minimum income guarantee. I will have something further to say about that in the not too distant future.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Does the Secretary of State realise that his reply to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is inconsistent with his earlier statement that he will accept the ombudsman's report in full? He told the hon. Gentleman that applications would be challenged in the normal way. On page 13 of the ombudsman's report, paragraph 32 says that the normal burden of proof should be changed round and that the burden of proof must
Mr. Darling: Let me repeat what I said when I answered the hon. Member for Havant and other hon. Members. We will set out in the regulations what information is required and what questions people will be asked when the claim is processed. I said that, where there is no documentary evidence, it will be for the Department to challenge or disprove the claim.
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The matter relates to the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and me. I am conscious that you are jealous of the protocol maintaining that, when a matter is referred to you for consideration, an hon. Member should not discuss that matter either in the media or outside the House until you have delivered your ruling on it. I assume that the same courtesy and protocol should be applied in the matter of findings by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
I should like to draw your attention to the fact that I was never notified that the hon. Member for Hull, North would be raising an issue--in relation to my interests, which were registered--to cast doubts on my integrity, and that he would do so publicly, in the media, prior to an adjudication. I should add that the Commissioner found that I had no case to answer.
May I also ask you to adjudicate on whether an hon. Member who asks--at a cost of more than £52,000, and in a comparatively short period--153 parliamentary questions, which amount to a denigrating campaign against the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is infringing the privileges of the House?
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) had to say. It was interesting that the questions to which he referred--which were tabled to the Ministry of Defence--revealed that rifles used on Bloody Sunday were destroyed when they were under the control of the Ministry of Defence. I should have thought that they would have been vital evidence in the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
It would also have revealed that the Police Federation of Northern Ireland used a Government website to state its opposition to the Patten committee report. That matter concerns the spending of money.