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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) introduced his new clause with precision and moderation. He rightly said that the Committee stage had been conducted in that spirit. We even found ourselves in agreement on a number of issues, to which I may have occasion to refer this afternoon. I support the hon. Gentleman's attempt to probe the Government's intentions. There is no need to rehearse his arguments at length.

On the technical side, it had occurred to me, and I am sure that Ministers will also say—anyone who has ever had ministerial responsibility is conscious of these things—that evidence is important. Even if Ministers wished to make a concession—we may hypothesise about that—I see the dilemma that they might face in deciding what the evidence should be. A proxy benefit that could be read back and then enhanced or treated as a credit for the present purpose would be much easier, but that is not the case.

The hon. Member for Northavon emphasised that his new clause essentially related to the position of women, but he did not cover himself as fully as he might have done. The drafting is unisex. Indeed, at one point the legal term "he" is used, to include both men and women, but realistically, the majority of people who have an incomplete entitlement to a full state pension and therefore, by extension, under the new arrangements in the Bill, an incomplete entitlement to the state pension credit, because they have to fill up their pension first, are likely to be women. That in no sense detracts from the validity of the hon. Gentleman's argument. We share that view.

I draw the attention of the House to the Select Committee report on the pension credit. Paragraph 29 points out that

There is a much greater shortfall among women. In Committee we analysed figures suggested by the Select Committee relating to

The Select Committee report goes on:

Those figures give the lie to the Government's assumption, which they have frequently asserted, that it always pays to save, and that the arrangements set out in

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the Bill are uniquely favourable to women. There is still something of a black hole for a number of women. The category was rightly identified by the hon. Member for Northavon. Attempts to deal with the matter will be neither free of cost nor without difficulty. Of course, women who had home responsibility before the new arrangements were introduced in the late 1970s are not the only category of people for whom there is a shortfall.

The Select Committee report indicated that there will always be some who have fallen short as some of their earnings were below the contribution level, while others may go abroad or break their service because of illness or whatever else. A number of people will miss out. The hon. Gentleman is not seeking to remedy all the ills of the pension system, but he is trying to tackle the problems and it is important that the Government make a substantive response.

The position of guardians was also discussed in Committee. I am especially sorry in that respect—but not only in that respect—that the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) cannot be present.

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): My hon. Friend wrote me a letter to apologise for his non-attendance, which is due to a commitment that he cannot get out of.

Mr. Boswell: I entirely accept that; my remarks were genuine and not meant to be sarcastic. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde made some serious points in Committee and it would be nice if he could be present. As he is not here, no doubt he will read what we have said. Indeed, he may want to return to some of the issues that we are discussing. It is a tribute to the respect that I have for him and his contributions in Committee that I wanted to say that he made a perfectly fair point about people who were caring for children as foster carers and so on, but were not in receipt of child benefit and could not be in receipt of home responsibility protection. Even if such people were looking after children full time and were unable to work, they would be racking up a potential shortfall in their future pension credit because they could not contribute.

The Minister spoke entirely in accordance with the general flavour of the Committee proceedings by responding sympathetically to that issue and saying that he would think about it. The two categories that arise are older cases involving people who had children in their care before home responsibility protection cut in or those whose contribution had been severely impaired by it, and those who currently have children in their care but are not in receipt of child benefit and therefore cannot get home responsibility protection to add to their eventual pension. Of course, the Minister may wish also to refer to other categories.

I do not want to make any mistake on the position of the Select Committee, but I am aware that it was concerned about some wider issues relating to shortfall on the pension credit. It summed up the passage from which I have already quoted by stating:

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I think that that is a reasonable request. Equally, I would understand if the Government were to say that those issues were not cost-free and that we cannot simply do everything that we want to do and must set priorities. For example, those who are currently caring for children may be a higher priority than those in some of the other categories that have been mentioned.

2.45 pm

It would be useful if the Minister could tell us how much the various difficulties exposed by the new clause would cost to remedy and explain the policy read-across, possibly including other benefits, and the administrability of any concessions. He would help the House by taking some of those matters forward. We understand that there are difficulties and that it is not always possible to rewrite the past, but as the hon. Member for Northavon said, as we move into the new century, we would like to secure a basis for the assessment of entitlement to pensions that is as principled, constructive and modern as possible.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I express my wholehearted support for the new clause of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) and I am pleased that it has been supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) from the Opposition Front Bench.

Women who choose to look after their children at home do not currently have a genuine choice in terms of the income that they forgo and the benefits to which they are entitled. Some of the Scandinavian countries such as Finland and Norway have excellent schemes in that regard. It would be easy for the Government to draw a line in the sand and say that the new clause seeks to rectify problems that arose a long time ago, that we should move on and that if we do anything it should be to rectify problems affecting women who currently have children. It would be enormously to their credit, however, if they were seriously to consider the new clause. That would send a powerful signal to the country that the value that the House and the Government place on women—and, indeed, on any parent who chooses to stay at home and look after their children—is the same as that which they place on parents who choose to go out to work.

I commend the hon. Member for Northavon for tabling the new clause, I am delighted to see that it has the support of Her Majesty's official Opposition and I hope that the Minister's response will be favourable.

Mr. McCartney: I thank the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) for the way in which he spoke to his new clause and the hon. Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for their contributions.

The hon. Member for Northavon said from the outset that he wanted our approach to be non-partisan, and the Committee proceedings were non-partisan in the sense that everyone put their view in a very fair and effective way. On occasions, the debate became very passionate, as there are significant differences, not least between the official Opposition and the hon. Member for Northavon, some of which may emerge in this debate. I shall be non-partisan to that extent, but it is important to be aware of all the issues. For example, the hon. Gentleman could have referred to his article in the Sunday Mirror, which we shall come to. That is what he was talking about;

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his remarks contained little reference to the new clause and related more to his legitimate campaigning on other issues.

The overriding issue for hon. Members in speaking to the new clause was fairness to women. We are attempting in the Bill to do a number of things. Some of them involve trying to right past wrongs and to do so effectively. The truth of the matter is that when the basic state pension was established, wonderful as it was, it had a number of flaws. Every pension system is a compromise, and one of the flaws was that the system undermined in a range of ways the position of a variety of different women in different circumstances, as the hon. Member for Northavon said.

We are, therefore, dealing with a legacy as well as trying to establish the pension credit, the state second pension and the other changes that we are making to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not visited on women in future. There must be a balance and we must have regard to what is feasible and can practically be done in establishing arrangements for the future and designing a system that should be non-discriminatory in dealing with gender and access on retirement to income from the state.

The hon. Member for Daventry—I am paraphrasing, so I apologise if I get anything wrong—suggested that the Bill did not extensively help women, but that is not the case.

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