Pension Annuities (Amendment) Bill

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Ruth Kelly: We extensively debated the merits of this private Member's Bill on Second Reading and in the previous sitting of the Committee.

The crux of the matter is whether amendment No. 10 re-inserts the restriction that people are required to buy an annuity at the age of 75, and whether the Government believe that people should be forced to buy an annuity with all of their pension funds at a certain age.

I will briefly run through the argument. Currently, an annuity is the only financial product that guarantees an income for life. A pension fund has been built up with significant Government tax relief: on average, of every £100 in a pension fund, the Government have provided £30. We have provided that sum specifically to ensure that people can provide for themselves in their old age, regardless of how long

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they live, and annuities are at present the only product available that enables them to do so.

If Committee members—or other people—come up with sensible, workable and affordable alternatives that ensure that that income for life is maintained, we will be prepared to consider them, but with one important caveat—they must not worsen the prospects of everyone who is forced to buy an annuity. The proposals would lead to a lowering of annuity rates for the majority of pensioners and I—as the responsible Minister—could not tolerate that.

The consultation document examines how the market could be made to work better for the majority of people with small pension funds. At present, someone who has a smallish pension fund of about £20,000 could be losing out by up to £8 a week, if they are not receiving the best advice and not taking out an annuity suited to their needs. Indeed, they could be losing out by much more than that if, for example, they have not taken out an impaired life annuity, which might be particularly suitable for them.

People are not getting good value with regard to annuity deals; there is a huge gap between what they are getting and what they should be getting, and they, rightly, feel aggrieved about that. That market must improve and we think that the consultation paper will enable us to make a significant beneficial impact on the lives of the majority of people who have to provide for themselves in retirement.

That is a summary of the argument that we have addressed in depth in the past few weeks. Amendment No. 10 restores the requirement that the whole of the pension fund must be used to provide an annuity income for life by no later than the age of 75.

Amendment No. 30, tabled by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, substitutes the age of 65 as the point at which the minimum income annuity must be secured with the new criteria of the attainment of state pension age and the cessation of all work for more than three months. Its intention is to give greater flexibility with regard to the ending of work—perhaps, it therefore takes on board the argument that has been put forward by Labour Committee members about the need to take account of flexible retirement and related matters. The amendment does not deal with those concerns, however. It would relax the rules in the original Bill to such an extent that people who are in any sort of part-time work—even as little as one hour a week—could avoid ever having to buy a minimum retirement income annuity. I am sure that that is not the hon. Gentleman's intention. If it were accepted, the pension scheme could turn into something akin to a death benefit scheme for those who so chose, with no pension ever being paid, and the whole fund eventually reverting to the scheme member's estate.

Amendment No. 30 would enable even the partial use of funds for a pension purpose, which the original Bill intended to avoid. For all those reasons, I ask hon. Members to support amendment No. 10 and resist amendment No. 30.

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9.15 am

Mr. Curry: The Minister has reiterated her point. Whenever the Government claim, absolutely and categorically, that something is a central principle, one knows that within a few weeks things are likely to change. It will be interesting to see whether there will be future developments, especially with regard to inheritability. I simply maintain that if one reviews the events of the past two or three weeks, when several companies have withdrawn from final salary schemes, the implication is that people will have to look much further. Provision will be through the private pension mechanism, so many more people—perhaps not immediately but in a predictable future—will be forced into the straitjacket of annuities, which will have an enormous impact on the way in which the annuity market works. It will work much less well because there will be more demand from a very limited supply, the consequences of which we have already seen.

It is inevitable that at some stage we will at least have to move towards a principle that is enshrined within my Bill. There must be choice and the Government will eventually see that logic. We have the opportunity to put my views and those of the Minister side by side. The consultation process makes my Bill work better, because I also depend on annuities. The better they work, the better for all of us. That is only a bit of the answer. I am trying to provide the other bit and I commend that bit to the Committee.

Mr. Flight: In essence, the Minister is saying that my amendment requires a tighter definition of what is meant by the term ''in work'', to clarify the potential number of hours worked and avoid being caught by her interpretation. We could deal with that issue on Report. However, I repeat and strengthen the opposition to amendment No. 10. The fundamental problem with the obligation to buy an annuity is that it forces people in the main to lock into a straight guaranteed annuity. It forces them to part with the pension savings in their pension pot and they are then at the mercy of whatever happens with inflation.

The Government ought to be extraordinarily worried about the rising tide of money being forced into annuities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, it is about to rise even more. Inflation and interest rates are historically low at present, but any rational person would agree that there was a prospect within the next 10 or 15 years of our going through a period of considerably higher inflation. Indeed, if people talk down sterling so that we can apply to join the euro, as has been predicted, inflation could easily rise to 5 or 6 per cent. with interest rates rising to 8 or 9 per cent.

People who have bought a fixed rate annuity at the low rates of inflation and interest that have prevailed for several years could see their pensions erode to very little in value. Millions of people are frightened of that happening as a result of the Soviet-style enforcement that continues. If people could keep a wider spread of investments, they would be able to manage their affairs in accordance with the economic cycles of life.

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As we have repeatedly made clear, the reason to top up to a level and buy an inflation-linked annuity is to prevent people from blowing their money irresponsibly and becoming dependent on the state. The annuity is inflation-indexed to protect against that. It is correct that if things had gone the other way, people might have enjoyed a slightly higher income as a result of buying a standard fixed annuity, but that is an irresponsible risk, particularly at present.

I emphasise the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon that the Government have made much of the Bill affecting a privileged minority. With the tragic demise of final salary schemes, the majority of people are moving to money-purchase pensions, whether group personal pensions, individual personal pensions or stakeholder pensions. If there are no reforms along the lines of the Bill, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon and I are the first to concede that it is not perfectly drafted but we are discussing the principle, that will mean that the majority of people retiring in 10 years, the great rump in the middle—the middle England vote that the Prime Minister is so keen to secure—will be hit by the problem of having to buy an annuity. The purpose of the Bill is to provide relief for that majority. Pension saving is declining because people do not want to pension save, despite the tax advantages, when they know that at the age of 75 they will have to put themselves at risk of the interplay between annuity yields and inflation. The principle of the reform is not for the minority but for the majority, in a fast-changing world in which money-purchase pensions are becoming the majority.

The arithmetic argument is that if an annuity is to deliver a guaranteed income, it must be invested in gilts or top quality safe bonds. There is a supply-and-demand problem because, if the Government are balancing their budget or even producing a fiscal surplus, the supply of gilts contracts. The rate of annuity money coming on to the market has been rising by 20 per cent. compound—some £8 billion last year—and is likely to rise even faster. The net effect is that the amount of money buying gilts is rising dramatically against a fixed or even declining pot of gilts in which annuities must be invested. Not surprisingly, that drives down yields. The halving of annuity yields and the doubling of the cost in the past decade or so has been the result not only of inflation but of long-term interest rates virtually halving. That has resulted from a major shift in supply and demand.

Unless the Minister is saying that the Government are about to move substantially into fiscal deficit and create a large supply of gilts, the rising tide of money-purchase pension money will make the position worse, long-term gilt yields will fall further and the real cost of annuities will rise further. The present position cannot continue because of what is happening to supply and demand for gilts under existing annuity arrangements. Widening the scope of annuities to equities may be fine for the better off, but while people are forced to buy annuities, the majority are likely to opt for standard fixed-rate annuities as at present.

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They will be rightly nervous of buying equity annuities because they are complex animals, expensive and, despite the excellent clarity of the paper on annuities, not everyone will easily understand them.

I suggest, as did my right hon. Friend, that the Government must not sit on their seat and wait for another private sector pension disaster to hit them, as they did with the final-salary pension disaster. The matter must be tackled now with a scheme to cope with the rising tide of money-purchase pension savings so that on retirement people will have a reasonable income.

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