Mr. Leigh: There is very little new to say. I was one of the people who put my name to the amendments. I have had numerous discussions with the Plymouth Brethren, who have come to see me in my surgery on many issues. They are difficult people to deal with because they have an absolutely rigid conscientious belief in what the Bible says and base their whole life on it.
By definition, no one in the Chamber is a member of that particular religion. Apparently, only about 12,000 people around the country are, so it would be easy to dismiss them as unimportant people who have a very rigid narrow lifestyle, but although I do not share their beliefs I firmly believe that the House of Commons is precisely the place where the standard should be taken up for tiny minorities. If we do not do it now and do not achieve progress this morning, we are failing in our duty.
Mr. Dismore: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a man of great faith. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) mentioned the biblical reference Romans 13.1, which I have looked up. I have some difficulty in understanding the basis of the Plymouth Brethren's objection. Romans 13.1, the Kings James version, says:
Mr. Leigh: Although this Chamber is very well placed to identify a minority group and to try to ensure a mechanism by which that minority group can live properly in society, it is not well equipped to start to look into the detailed religious beliefs of minorities, whether the Plymouth Brethren or any other, and to say why they have come to their views. The fact is that they have come to those views and they believe that, if people take out an annuity or an assurance policy they are gambling with life. They believe that it is prohibited in the Bible.
None of us in the Chamber shares that view. All of us are happy with taking out insurance policies, annuities and all the rest of it. That is not the issue. The issue is that there is this minority. The Minister's speech was disappointing in that respect. She is entitled to say that the amendment is defective and that she is opposed to a retirement failsafe fund. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) referred to landing lights. It is not a question of not being able to see the landing lights. We have no conception after this short debate of where the Minister is going. Despite numerous interventionsshe was questioned again and againshe has not shed the slightest bit of light on how she intends to deal with these people.
I would have thoughtI hope that the Minister will have a chance to sum up in this debatethat it was possible for her to say, "We have these people whom we are not allowed to mention who are advising us, some of the cleverest people in the land. We have this tiny minority of 12,000 people." As I understand it, she is saying that, if she were to accommodate that minority, it would create a loophole for wealthy people who are not Plymouth Brethren. That is an understandable point of view.
Would it not be more honest, then, for the Minister to say, "This is such a technically difficult subject, this is such a small minority that I am never going to be able to resolve the issue. If I make an exception to help that particular minority, a much wider group of wealthy taxpayers will pour through the loophole"? That would be a more honest point of view. The Plymouth Brethren would have to accept that. They would have to accept that they will never be able to have an annuity and will have to find some other mechanism. The Minister said that there were other mechanisms, but she was not prepared to articulate them.
This debate is depressing because, frankly, it is disingenuous. The Minister could say either that she would never be able to accommodate the concernswe could understand thator that she had been discussing the matter with her officials for four years and there was a way of dealing with it that she was prepared to share with the House without giving a commitment today, which no one would expect. We would like a brief elucidation of how she thinks the problem can be resolved. If it cannot be resolved, let us be honest and admit it here in winding up the debate today.
Members have talked about how there are only a mere 12,000 Plymouth Brethren in the entire United Kingdom. I suspect that were the amendment to be passed, that 12,000 might become closer to 12 million. The amendment's supporters are seeking to put through a package without specifying what is in it, but which would achieve certain objectives that would have extremely damaging consequences for the Treasury, as they well know.
Mr. Gardiner: As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, that is not what I am saying. If 12 million people were to be given by the Government what amounts to an enormous loophole through the taxation system, they might well avail themselves of it. I could not support that and I trust that the hon. Gentleman would not either.
I understand the considerable concern about annuities that has prompted the Bill. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) for the way in which he has piloted the Bill through the House and conducted Second Reading, and the skilful way in which he dealt with the Committee. The decline in the equities market and the falling rate that annuities now achieve have caused concern about security in retirement. Obviously, that is something that the Government must address and are addressing through consultation.
It is in all of our interests that people's savings for retirement are secured into the future, but nothing could prompt me to go quite as far as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) in claiming that annuities were not, in principle, a secure way of doing
Mr. Flight: It is clear that the indexed annuities proposed in the Bill do that. It is widely known and understood that guaranteed annuities, which are not indexed, cannot provide any secure real income.
Mr. Gardiner: I take issue with the hon. Gentleman's remarks that annuities do not provide the most secure way of providing for one's retirement income way into the future. He and his party have always maintained thatthey maintained it when in governmentand I should be wholly surprised if they tried to imply otherwise at this stage. The example that he usesrampant inflation and escalating oil pricesfails to take into account the effect of the equities market on funds that would be in precisely the investment vehicle that he proposes. Of course, there would be similar consequential and deleterious effects. It is disingenuous of him to claim that one could discover a problem with annuities in this context, but not with his proposed investment vehicle. To be honest, I expect better of him, knowing how well he understands these issues.
My hon. Friend the Minister spoke extremely cogently about mortality drag, but several sedentary interventions implied otherwise. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that the older one becomes, the older one is likely to become, but anybody who understands the business of actuaries and actuarial tables will realise exactly what the Minister was referring to. Over time, mortalities that would occur at an earlier rate fall away, so life expectancy increasesup to a certain point. As with all such matters, there are limiting parameters. Of course, the idea that one can go on to 130 once one attains the great age of 100 is complete nonsense. Such cheapskate responses by Opposition Members to the Minister's arguments are wholly inappropriate.
As the Minister explained, the costs arising from the problem of mortality drag are substantial, and I seek from the Opposition a response to the point that I tried to make in an intervention. Precisely how would they deal with the global effect of a rise in the age at which people seek to take out annuities? I will happily give way to any Opposition Member, including the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, who proposed the Bill. Would he care to explain that point to the House, because it is important and the Opposition have yet to resolve it? I see that I have no takers, which obviously means that they have no response to make.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) encouraged us to look more carefully at the biblical reference in Romans 13.1, given to us by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), which is the basis for the argument. I shall quote from the slightly more up-to-date version that I have obtainedthe revised standard versionrather than the King James version.