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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Can the Leader of the House find time for a statement or debate on the future of the Millennium Commission, and on the way in which it has dealt with the 24 Landmark projects around the country? In particular, the debate should include discussion of the fiasco relating to the millennium tower in Portsmouth.

Mr. Cook: I sense that this is an important constituency issue, on which I regret that I am not briefed. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, and I am sure that he will find other ways to pursue it in the House.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is the Leader of the House aware that my constituent, Tony Martin, is back in the news again because he is being sued by one of the burglars who broke into his house? Does he agree that we ought to have a new legal principle whereby criminals who break and enter into properties leave their civil rights outside? Would he also agree that it is monstrous that someone should get legal aid in a case in which their solicitor has already agreed to act on a contingency—no win, no fee—basis? I am trying to table an early-day motion on this matter, but I am told that it may be sub judice because the case may be brought in the future. How would the right hon. Gentleman advise me to bring this protest forward?

Mr. Cook: As Leader of the House, I must strongly defend our convention on sub judice, however frustrating it may be from time to time. On the particular point that the hon. Gentleman raises, it would plainly be proper for the courts to take into account the way in which the event took place, and the fact that the people in question had broken into property, in making any judgment about whether they were entitled to compensation. The Government have no control over the Legal Aid Board, to which, quite properly, we have devolved decision making. As a constituency Member, I frequently find its decisions baffling.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): The Leader of the House is aware that many hon. Members in all parts of the House represent constituencies where agriculture is a sizeable contributor to the local economy or shapes the pace of rural life and the environment. It is increasingly difficult to ask questions on particular aspects of farming in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, so will he make time available in the next Session for a proper debate on the future of farming?

Mr. Cook: I am conscious of the demand from both sides of the House for a proper discussion on the countryside, perhaps going wider than the agricultural

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economy. That is a matter that we will bear in mind. The matter of DEFRA questions was raised at the start of the Session, when DEFRA brought together the previously separate Question Times on farming and the environment. We considered the request from some hon. Members to separate out the time, but, on balance, we took a decision that the point of DEFRA was to ensure that we had a seamless approach to the countryside that embraced all other aspects of the countryside economy, and therefore that it was important to retain a single DEFRA Question Time, rather than suggesting that farming could be subdivided from it.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Since the Minister for Pensions told the House:

and since his account was directly contradicted in public evidence given to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions by a senior civil servant in his Department, Ms Alexis Cleveland, who said:

will the Leader of the House, notwithstanding what the Minister told the House yesterday, arrange for the Minister to come to the House and correct a serious error?

Mr. Cook: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions informs me that he dealt with the matter at points of order yesterday, that he was absolutely correct and that the hon. Gentleman is in error. I shall happily discuss the matter further with the hon. Gentleman and write to him. I have the fullest confidence in my right hon. Friend, and if I am obliged on the spur of the moment to choose which advice to accept, I shall certainly take the advice of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): On Wednesday and Thursday next week, the gentleman described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) as "the nice Mr. Crow"—most other people think that he is pretty nasty—is turning his bully-boy tactics against 3 million Londoners and is determined to disrupt the underground services. Does the Leader of the House accept that that is a political strike and, in that sense, an unusual strike, because the supposed justification for it—safety—has been removed by the approval of the safety case? Does he further accept that, because of its significance as a political strike and the disruption that it will cause, it would reasonable for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House early next week and explain what he intends to do to prevent similar strikes, and how he will alleviate the suffering that Londoners will otherwise undergo?

Mr. Cook: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the safety case relating to the public-private partnership project for the tube has been thoroughly examined. We have given clear assurances on that, and we have made it plain that the Health and Safety Executive will have the

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final lock on whether the proposals are safe. There is therefore no valid ground of safety for an industrial dispute or for any other form of concern. I do not see any merit in the industrial action to which he refers, and I very much hope that those who work on the London underground will reflect on whether they are really assisting their own cause by taking part in it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): On an entirely non-partisan point, as the proposer of a ten-minute Bill seeking to amend the Data Protection Act 1998 to remove the impediments to hon. Members going about their duties on behalf of their constituents, I welcome the confirmation by the Leader of the House this afternoon that he intends to produce, by the Summer recess, a draft statutory instrument to resolve the problem. I and other hon. Members look forward to reading the detail of that statutory instrument and, hopefully, returning after the summer recess to vote it into law to solve the problem once and for all.

Mr. Cook: It would be less than gracious of me to do other than accept what the hon. Gentleman said and I am grateful for his support. I should clarify that it is not I who will lay the statutory instrument but my colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, I shall make a point this afternoon of telephoning them as soon as I leave the Chamber to draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to their attention.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and other hon. Members, can the Leader of the House understand the frustration felt by teachers, head teachers and parents in Staffordshire when the formula grant distribution document offers four alternative options for the funding of schools in England that would leave Staffordshire worse off? One would leave us marginally better off but still with a greater distance than now between the richest and poorest counties. To put that in context, Staffordshire receives the lowest funding per pupil bar one other English county, and that is just not fair. Can we have a debate on the issue? In 1997, the Government promised to put the matter to rights. In this document, all four options make Staffordshire worse off, not better off.

Mr. Cook: As the hon. Gentleman fairly said—I congratulate him on his candidness—there are a number of different options in the consultative document. It is open to his local authority and to others to object to any or all of those four options if they believe that they do not make the correct division. That is why we had a consultation period. I hope that when he corresponds with his local authority and his teachers, he will point out that spending on education is now one quarter higher than it was when the Conservative party was in office and, under the forthcoming spending review, there will be a further increase. There is no local authority in England that does not now have substantially more to spend on its schools and teachers than was the case before 1997. If he would care to admit that publicly, I shall listen sympathetically to what he says about distribution.

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Pickering Review

1.27 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Pickering report that was published this morning.

The report is the culmination of nine months of hard work by Alan Pickering and his team. I should like to thank him and also everyone who took the time and effort to submit their views—some of whom are here today.

In his report, Alan Pickering acknowledges the encouragement that he received not only from my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister for Pensions, but also from the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and the hon. Members for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and for Northavon (Mr. Webb).

Pensions simplification has to be at the heart of any strategy to encourage greater pension provision. We need to deal with the complexities built up over the years by successive Governments.

Alan's report makes 52 recommendations. The key ones include: a new pensions Act to consolidate all existing pensions legislation; a new more proactive regulator; a better, more targeted approach for communicating with pension scheme members; more flexibility to modify schemes; allowing employers to make membership of their occupational pension scheme a condition of employment; and the ending of compulsory indexation for defined benefit pensions, and compulsory survivors benefits.

The report, together with Ron Sandler's proposals, announced by my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary on Tuesday, represents the first stage of a comprehensive review of occupational and personal pension provision.

The Government will take a radical look at the issues, together with the results of the Inland Revenue review of tax simplification, when that is completed. In the autumn we will come forward with our proposals in a Green Paper.

That will initiate a wide-ranging consultation. It will look at private pensions policy in the round, including the opportunities open to people around retirement, and will set out the Government's proposals to enable people to build up more pension savings.

Alan Pickering's report covers complex issues and includes some tough choices—the inevitable dilemmas faced by all simplifiers. The report presents challenges to us all: employees and their unions, employers and commercial pension providers, the Government and the Opposition. I believe that we will need to be guided by the following principles and objectives, grounded in a long-term approach: fairness; security in retirement; informed choice for consumers; simple and proportionate regulation; ensuring that incentives are effective and well understood; promoting employment among older workers; and flexibility to give individuals more choice about the pace at which they retire from the labour market. I hope that we can secure all-party agreement on those matters.

The Government believe that pension provision should be based on partnership, which can secure lasting buy-in from all key players. We must strike the right balances between sometimes competing goals. We want the

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simplicity that enables people to make informed choices without stifling product innovation and competition. We want a proportionate regulatory framework that provides sufficient security for savers while making it worth while for employers and commercial providers to make available good pension products. We need to ensure that we remove unnecessary barriers to employer provision and employer contributions. We also need to make it easier for people to save and make it easier to sell pension products, as Ron Sandler's report proposed on Tuesday. We need to achieve all that and more against the remorseless arithmetic that tells us that, because we are living longer and want to maintain a good standard of living in retirement, we need to save more or work longer, or a combination of both.

We wanted Alan Pickering to present a strong challenge to the degree of regulation around private pensions. He has done that—he has made some valuable proposals for simplifying pensions legislation and reducing administrative burdens on both schemes and employers, cutting costs and simplifying choices for individuals. His recommendations also present some tough choices. Take, for example, his recommendation that employers should have the choice to make joining a company pension a condition of employment. Some 16 per cent. of people who could benefit from a company pension scheme currently choose not to do so. Compelling people to join would restrict their choice, but against that consideration, we need to balance the beneficial effects for schemes and the overall effect on extending pension coverage.

Alan has also made a number of specific recommendations on easements of legislation—in particular, repeal of section 67 of the Pensions Act 1995. Again, that throws up a tough choice. The recommendation would mean that, if employers faced funding constraints on their scheme, they could have an option to reduce future funding costs rather than close the scheme. Of course, that would remove an absolute guarantee against the consequences of change, but might well secure a better outcome for members and the future of the scheme, set against the alternative of its closure.

Alan also recommends an end to compulsory indexation of pensions and removal of compulsory survivors' benefits as a condition of contracting out. On first reading, those proposals are not attractive. They go against the drive of the past 30 years to price protect pensions and to enhance survivors' benefits, but again, in the light of the report, we will need to look carefully at all the consequences.

As well as the big themes and recommendations to which I have referred, a number of more modest issues are addressed to my Department and others. For example, they include improving the way in which contracting out is administered; streamlining procedures and reducing general administrative burdens; looking at ways better to provide advice through the workplace; and improving information going to pension scheme members. Those recommendations have considerable merit, and subject to the responses that we receive to the report, I intend to take them forward.

In conclusion, I believe that Alan Pickering's report offers clear options for simplification and makes a valuable contribution to the debate that we need to have on the next stage of pension reform. We need to face up to the tough choices that he sets out. In seeking to simplify

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the future we must also face up to the—in many ways harder—challenge of simplifying the past, in that we need to simplify the different regulations that have built up over the years. Otherwise, we will end up adding yet another layer to the existing layer cake of regulation and complexity.

Alan Pickering's proposals are radical, ambitious and pragmatic. I urge hon. Members, the public, employers, trade unions and pension providers—all those whose partnership is essential for effective pension reform—to give them full and constructive consideration. The Government certainly will. The acid tests for the Green Paper must be increasing the level of savings for retirement and making a secure occupational pension accessible to as many people as possible.

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