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Mr. Webb: Would the hon. Gentleman care to speculate on where and when hon. Members will first read the detail of the annuities report?

Mr. Boswell: It would be unwise, and possibly invidious, to say. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no, in the nicest possible way. The Government will sit there, fiddling like Nero over the general pensions front, until the US Cavalry in the shape of Alan Pickering reports with what I hope will be a major deregulatory package. The sooner that report is received and acted on, the better.

Meanwhile, the apostles of complexity on the Treasury Bench add new touches and torments in the State Pension Credit Bill. They are indeed spending a couple of billion pounds a year, but they do so at a remarkably heavy price in complexity and disincentives to saving. In the long term, the costs might escalate to a staggering £26 billion—but if one has just wiped £100 billion off the funds, £26 billion does not seem too much between friends.

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Our motion is ready to give the Government credit for their objectives where and if credit is due. We welcome their stated aim of increasing from 40 to 60 per cent. the proportion of pensioner income coming from the private sector. Delivery, not intention, is the problem. We remember that it was the Labour Government who set their face against an increase in means-testing, and we judge their intentions against their achievements in that respect. By 2003, pension credits are likely to involve 57 per cent. of pensioners, and that proportion might rise to two thirds as the scheme rolls out. Two thirds of our pensioners might be on means-tested benefits in future; however softened, it will still be means-testing.

Opposite sits the sorcerer in the shape of the Secretary of State, and the sorcerer's apprentice in the shape of the Minister for Pensions, who will shortly reply to the debate. They like to brandish the goodies they put into the pot, and they enjoy giving it the occasional stir to keep things apparently busy. Now they are simply sitting back, waiting for Pickering. The pensions pot beneath them is holed and draining fast. There will soon be little left except thin gruel for the taxpayer.

To return to my beginning in these remarks, and to adapt my initial quotation from Mr. Duke of Towers Perrin, in pensions it is the Government who are not doing enough, and they do not understand pensions at all.

9.45 pm

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): I came to London this morning full of hope that, the Conservative Opposition having initiated the second debate in 10 weeks on pension policy, we would learn something. Of course, it has been a policy-free debate on the part of Conservative Members. We started with a spokesman from the Opposition Dispatch Box and we finished on the Siegfried line. We had crocodile tears, scaremongering and hand wringing from one or two of the old-fashioned one-nation Tories who have been banished to the Back Benches for ever. We never received one view from the Conservatives about what they would do for older people, whether in terms of a pension policy or any other policy related to older people.

The Leader of the Opposition would hit pensioners hard. He is a bitter opponent of both the winter fuel scheme and the minimum income guarantee. He has said:

Yet about 2,000 of his constituents benefit from it. By attacking the MIG, do Conservative Members want to continue to withdraw resources from the poorest pensioners?

Mr. Boswell: The right hon. Gentleman has accused us of not producing any policies. I think he will have noticed that we are unlikely to be in a position to enact any of our policies until after the next general election. We shall certainly do so when the time comes. I ask him what he would like to do at the next election. Will he commit the Government to maintaining the earnings link for pension credit after the next election? When he has answered that question, he may start lecturing us about our policy.

Mr. McCartney: It is a weak excuse to say, "I will not be in power for a generation", and not give the public the Opposition's view of their pension policy. As for the

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minimum income guarantee, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made it clear time and time again that the arrangements are for this Parliament. When we come to the next general election and present our manifesto, we will once again be the only party with policies to tackle pensioner poverty and, more important, to ensure in future that there will be no pensioners living in poverty, which is what we inherited from the Conservative Government.

We have heard winter fuel payments described as "cock-eyed", yet 20,000 of the Leader of the Opposition's constituents receive winter fuel payments. The right hon. Gentleman supported value added tax on fuel and voted for it to increase to 17.5 per cent. If that were not enough, let me refer to his view on the basic state pension. He said that it

That is the Tories' hidden agenda. That is why they have taken it off the website. That is why they are not giving an opinion in public. It is the same agenda as was rubbished at the last election. It will be rubbished at the next election and the election after that. It will be rubbished until the Tories learn something about working with older people in a more effective way.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McCartney: No, I will not give way to the hon. Lady, and I will explain why. First, she has not been in her place for more than half the debate. Secondly, we were debating poverty in Scotland last week, and the Scottish National party did not turn up for that debate either. I tell the hon. Lady to stop being a part-time Member and to attend debates in this place more regularly.

I have read the records. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) is the Baldrick of the Conservative Front Bench. In March 1996, he said:

Would you trust this man with your pension fund, Madam Deputy Speaker?

The Tories failed not just once, but time and time again, in the 18 years they were in power, when they consigned millions year on year to a life of poverty, treating them with utter contempt. They failed to tackle the legacy of pensioner poverty, but we introduced the MIG so that the poorest pensioners will be at least £15 better off. If the Tories were in power, they would withdraw that and cut £15 from the pensions of 2 million of the poorest pensioners.

We inherited the SERPS mess, which affected millions of people. We are putting in £50 billion over the next 50 years to put that error right. We made sure that compensation was paid to those who were conned through the mis-selling scandal; again, thousands and thousands of people were swindled. The total cost of putting that right is estimated at some £13.5 billion. Conservatives may have come to debate holes in pension policy, but the only holes in pension policy in the past two decades were created by their party; it has taken the Labour party in government to plug those holes.

Ten weeks ago, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said that stakeholder pensions were a flop. Tonight, we have the latest figures; from a standing start

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in eight months, 637,000 people working in the private sector who, a year ago, did not have a pension or the possibility of having one, now have one because of the Labour Government. Some 310,000 employers, over 80 per cent. of those who should register, have already registered; a year ago, those employers were not prepared to provide a vehicle for their staff to share in a pension when they retire.

Mr. Willetts: I should like to give the Minister an opportunity to correct the assertion that he has just made. He said that 600,000 people who did not previously have a pension have taken out stakeholder pensions. Will he confirm that we know that 170,000 of those people already had a pension from the construction industry scheme, and that many others had concurrent pensions? Perhaps the only people who did not have a pension, and about whom the Minister is right, are grandchildren and non-working wives.

Mr. McCartney: The construction industry's old pension scheme was closed down. If it were not for stakeholder pensions, 170,000 construction workers in Britain would not have a pension entitlement. Construction industry employers are choked to find that the Conservatives continue to attack their efforts to introduce an industry notorious for lack of commitment to the stakeholder pension. The industry and its work force are fully supportive of stakeholder pensions.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) rose

Mr. McCartney: Okay, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who was here for the full debate.

Richard Younger-Ross: I note that the Minister frequently says that Conservative policies have no clothes, and I remember what was said about pensions management by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). Does the Minister not concede that, by comparison, the Government have barely a fig leaf?

Mr. McCartney: I did not quite catch the hon. Gentleman's last remark, but if it was anything like the contribution of his hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), the answer is no.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is in his place; I thank him for supporting the Government's efforts to help poor pensioners. The issues are indeed difficult, and we may well be dealing with them in a rough and ready way. However, the truth is that the Government, in the long term as well as the short term, will provide sustainability and investment in state sector pensions. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) made an excellent contribution on the benefits of the Government's strategy of targeting poor pensioners. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats have come up with an adequate answer tonight; if they really want to tackle pensioner poverty, why do they oppose every measure that we take to tackle pensioner poverty, either by voting against it in the House or rubbishing it outside?

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