It is clear that the ombudsman is in no doubt. In the other place, Lord Higgins read out at some length correspondence that he had had with the ombudsman, and I shall repeat a couple of key phrases. In a letter to Lord Higgins, the ombudsman stated:
I suggested to the Department that the onus of proof was therefore reversed. It was for the Department to prove someone would not have acted differently if they had not been misinformed . . . The presumption had to be that anyone who could reasonably claim to have been misled and in consequence to have acted, or failed to act, to their detriment had a prima facie claim for redress.
Lord Higgins pointed out that people
will still have to prove that they suffered loss as a result.
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Therefore, there are two issues: were the people given incorrect or incomplete information, and did that cause loss? People will still have to prove loss, but the presumption will be that they were given duff information, unless the Government can prove otherwise.
When the amendment was debated in the Lords, lengthy consideration was given to the question of incomplete information, as opposed to incorrect information, which, in turn, raises a broad spectrum of issues. The fundamental question is, when legislation as far-reaching as the Bill is passed, should people be informed individually? However, if the House approves the amendment, all we will be saying is that people who say that they were given incomplete information can be presumed to be telling the truth. The Government would not be required to do anything about that; even if the amendment were made, the regulations need not bind the Government to compensate everyone who was given incomplete information. In my view, compensation should be given, but that is not what the amendment would do; it merely reverses the burden of proof and leaves the Government free to make regulations based on that assumption.
I hope that the Government are not telling the House that they reserve the right not to reverse the burden of proof. The ombudsman has made his views clear and Baroness Hollis stated that the Government accepted the arguments regarding reversal. Therefore, if the amendment is not accepted, how does the Government envisage the scheme operating? Baroness Hollis said:
When the time comes for people to make their claims, we envisage asking them a few questions about how and roughly when they saw a leaflet.--[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 June 2000; Vol. 614, c. 771-72, 777.]
We are talking about events occurring from 1986 onward--leaflets that were read in the late 1980s. When I asked the Minister about the position of married women on the reduced rate, saying that many were misled, he replied that it all happened ages ago and that no one could prove that--yet the Government appear to want to keep open the option of requiring people to do precisely that.
At issue is not merely whether or not people read a leaflet, but whether or not they visited a citizens advice bureau: Baroness Hollis said that going to a citizens advice office or Age Concern, both of which were misled by dodgy leaflets, would be good enough. Therefore, if someone makes a claim, the DSS official will ask, "When did you see the leaflet?", to which the individual might reply, "I didn't see a leaflet, but I got the wrong impression." The official will then ask whether the individual went to a citizens advice bureau or Age Concern. That strikes me as being an extraordinary process.
The crucial point is that people will have to believe it is worth their while making a claim, but if there is a whiff of a suggestion that, when they phone up, they will be asked to provide proof, most will not bother; if there is any suggestion that they will be asked questions about how and roughly when they saw a leaflet, some will think that they cannot possibly remember. We shall be dealing with people who have passed retirement age: the Minister specifically mentioned people who are mentally impaired, but most people cannot remember what leaflet they looked at 10 years ago, let alone the person they chatted to at an advice centre. I am extremely concerned that the Government want to retain the option of not reversing the burden of proof.
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Just before the debate, I received some comments from Age Concern, which strongly supports the amendment. It says that, unless the amendment is made,
it will still be up to individuals to make a claim; to provide details of how they were misinformed; to show they relied on this information . . . and to show that they may suffer financially.
That is a lot of hurdles. Showing that one has suffered financially will be extremely difficult, especially because the proof consists of having done nothing--one did not opt out, even though one might have done, because the scheme appeared to be a good one. The Government have a moral duty to erect the fewest hurdles possible, but, although they have nodded in the direction of reversing the burden of proof, they appear to want to keep their options open.
Some pensioners contacted Age Concern about the existing proposals, not the amended version; they want the amendment to be made. One said:
The majority of those misled are pensioners, many may not feel up to the task of convincing the DSS that their claim is valid.
We have to make it as easy as possible to claim because, otherwise, people will not do so; reversing the burden of proof is crucial. Another pensioner said:
Continuing the uncertainty is a constant source of distress and erosion in our lives. Can I please make my application soon, remove this worry and enjoy the time left to us?
The amendment would help to end that uncertainty, because it would guarantee the reversal of the burden of proof. The fact that the Government do not want to accept it suggest that they want to change tack in the near future. We want to reassure pensioners. We think that the Lords and the Conservative Front Benchers in the other place were right. I hope that their hon. Friends in this House will support their colleagues at the other end of the Corridor. We certainly shall.
As I said at the outset, we have no scheme to lay before the House, so it is not possible to go into the sort of detail that hon. Members want. However, let us be straight: the purpose of the amendment is to insert into primary legislation a provision ensuring that any applicant to the inherited SERPS scheme will be deemed to have been given incorrect or incomplete information unless the Department can prove otherwise. The effect would be to allow people who have neither sought nor received information to be deemed to have received incomplete or incorrect information. That almost amounts to a policy reversal.
Yes, it does.
The ombudsman estimates that deferring the policy change for 30 months until 6 October 2002 and introducing an inherited SERPS scheme to cover those who were misled or misinformed would cost up to £8.2 billion by 2050, so we are not talking about Government penny-pinching. However, the amendment would increase the costs significantly by opening up the scheme to people who were not misinformed because they never asked for information: reversing the policy by making the amendment would result in a cost of £23 billion by 2050.
We have made it clear that we want to protect people who were given incomplete or incorrect advice. We do not record telephone calls, so we have no evidence.
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Claimants will sign a form, which has not yet been designed, saying that they phoned an office; they will sign and date it as is normal with a DSS form. We will not be able to challenge that statement--we shall have to accept what they say. That is the burden of proof under which we shall be working. The amendment would extend that protection to people who were never advised and who never asked any questions. I cannot believe hon. Members want to make a decision far in advance of the Government introducing a scheme after considering the Select Committee reports and the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee. It would be barmy to make such a decision when the cost of the amendment, at up to £23 billion, is three times greater than the highest figure suggested for our proposals.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister in full flow. On the question of telephone calls, if people make that call, sign the form and there is no proof that they acted in any way other than they say they did, does the fact of their having done nothing and having made no additional provision constitute sufficient proof, or will something else be required?
The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for us to come forward with the scheme.
People will have to say at some time or another that they might have done something differently. That naturally follows if they were misinformed. They will have to say that they did not do something that they would have done owing to bad information. That is the purpose of an inquiry about SERPS in the first place. The hurdle would be information that led someone to a certain course of action; they would tell us about the false information on which they had relied.
It is not such an onerous hurdle for people to say that they made a call, the date of which they cannot remember, and were reassured that they and their spouses would be okay and that, say, the claim would be 100 per cent. As a result, they did not take action to protect their position. People could tell us that they had received advice confirming that their claim would be chopped to 50 per cent. in 2000, which subsequently led them to take out a life policy that they were mis-sold.