State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Surely no one could accuse my hon. Friend of prolixity.

Mr. Boswell: I would very much hope not. To be accused of obesity and prolixity in the same morning would be intolerable, and I have no intention of giving occasion for that. Let us, in all good faith, touch on the programme resolution—others may wish to contribute on that subject—but we are here for business, and we will be pleased to engage with it.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Like all members of the Committee, I am keen to proceed to the substantive discussion and have no contention with the programme resolution. For the benefit of our future deliberations, I should say that our role is to consider the amendments with care and in detail during our limited number of sittings on the Bill, and not to rehash the broad-brush Second Reading debate. I hope that the Minister and the hon. Member for Daventry will, in good faith, join me in taking the limited opportunity that we have to examine the detail of this technical Bill, rather than trotting out the tired clichés and accusations that sometimes arise on Second Reading. I am sure that the Committee will conduct its deliberations in a positive spirit and I look forward to getting on with business.

Question put and agreed to.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee of the money resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. I also remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during afternoon sittings.

Clause 1


Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 1, line 3, leave out 'state'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 18, in page 1, line 4, at end insert—

    '(1A) State pension credit shall be publicised to the general public under the title ''pension credit''.'.

Amendment No. 10, in page 1, line 5, leave out 'state'.

Amendment No. 11, in page 1, line 11, leave out 'state'.

Amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 22, leave out 'state'.

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Mr. Boswell: Thank you, Mr. Griffiths, for starting us off on a good note. The amendments are possibly both trivial and profound simultaneously—trivial because they relate to a piece of nomenclature and drafting, and profound in that they expose some of the details and equivocations of the strategy behind the Bill.

It is obvious, even to a casual observer, that amendments Nos. 9, 10, 11 and 12 all have the same effect in their different places—to leave out ''state'' in state pension credit. It is not easy or even possible to amend the short or long title or, indeed, any of the rubrics to a Bill, such as that which appears on line 1:

    ''State pension credit: entitlement and amount''.

One can only amend the text of the Bill. The amendments seek to probe an apparently minor matter—what the benefits to be derived from the Bill will be called. It is odd that the word ''state'' is inserted before the words ''pension credit'', not least because Ministers made it clear in the points of guidance, including the Select Committee Report, that the benefit would be called the pension credit. We now find that it has an unnecessarily long and pompous title in the formal presentation.

I also have reservations about why the benefit is called a state credit. I rehearse each day whether I understand how the Bill works, and I think that I do—at least for parts of the day.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I know the feeling.

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend agrees. Perhaps the Minister feels the same way. The Bill is a complex piece of legislation. Essentially, it says that there shall be a guarantee analogous to the minimum income guarantee that will take over from it. It will be effected by a guarantee credit paid to pensioners as part of their pension. It is relatively straightforward and precedented by present practice, although there are welcome changes and improvements about which I do not argue. However, beyond that is a savings guarantee, which does not mean that people will receive more money than they would with a flat rate set at the level of the minimum income guarantee as an entitlement, and in addition their own income. It means that their income will be withdrawn at a particular pace, and we may want to debate that later.

10.45 am

Of course I concede to the Minister that, as a payment is to be made alongside the state pension, in his view it is supplementary to that pension and designed to reward saving, and he would regard it as a state benefit. I, however, would regard it the other way round, as a phased withdrawal of the benefits of retaining a full private entitlement. However, we could argue endlessly about that. The question is whether it is to be tied around the neck of the state.

I have a further reservation relating to the amendments—the use of the word ''state''. I admit that, possibly because of analogy with the amendments, I slipped into using the words ''state retirement pension'', which many of us use as a term of art. However, I am not aware of any formal titles that

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include the word ''state''. The last time that I can think of anything similar in a benefit, it was national assistance, introduced by the National Assistance Act 1948, and was the precursor to income support. The word ''national'', rather than the word ''state'', was used. Will the Minister explain his thinking in using the word ''state''?

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): I do not understand how the reasons that the hon. Gentleman cites support the argument for getting rid of the word ''state''. Perhaps he will reassure me that the reason why the Conservatives tabled the amendment was not that they were thinking of getting rid of the state pension, perhaps by having people opt out of it, as was reported in The Guardian recently.

Mr. Boswell: Much as I like The Guardian, I do not have to believe everything that I read in it, although I increasingly welcome much of what I read in it.

The hon. Gentleman must not speculate. I assure him that we are engaged in a full review of all aspects of policy. When that policy is announced, I am sure that he will be one of the first to know. Indeed, having arrived to scoff, he may stand back and stay to cheer on the matter.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Instead of agreeing with The Guardian, perhaps the hon. Gentleman agrees with his colleague the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who speaks from the Front Bench on such matters, who said in a recent letter to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), dated 7 March 2002:

    ''The vision of moving to a funded alternative to the basic state pension is a powerful and compelling one which you and I share.''

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman, who has recently arrived in this place, would not want me to comment on correspondence on its own and out of context. Perhaps he did not understand what I said to his colleague. We shall consider such matters, decide on our approach and announce it.

I also said—the hon. Gentleman may want to differ about this, although I hope that he will not differ about the rest—that he may yet find that, having turned up to grumble, he returns to cheer. Indeed, it is already clear from the remarks of the hon. Member for Kettering, my constituency neighbour, which were made only yesterday, that several Labour Members are unhappy with the approach of moving to a means-tested credit and ultimately extending means-testing to probably two thirds of pensioners, if not more. It goes against their principles, if they have them—I hope they do—and may not be effective in dealing with poorer pensioners' interests.

I recall a meeting of members of the Greater London Pensioners Association—not in this Room, but next door—whom one might think are perhaps not my natural soul mates. However, they felt strongly that they wanted the measure to be a basic credit, rather than a means-tested credit. I signal to Labour Members, who might be cutting themselves off from some of their roots, that many people who would not necessarily put their cross against the name of a Tory candidate are unhappy with this tendency.

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Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that we have not received a full explanation from the Government of the sudden conversion to mass means-testing? We know that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have spoken at length about their severe disquiet on means-testing, especially for older people. We have not received an explanation of their change of heart.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was about to wrap up the previous two interventions by saying that I had been led wide of the narrow amendment by my indulgence in responding to Labour Members' concerns. I shall now indulge myself by responding to my hon. Friend's worry, which I share. The only explanation that I can produce is psychological. If people change their mind—I dare say that this is true of all politicians, before we single out individual examples—they may do that immoderately in the opposite direction and become passionately opposed to that which they espoused until only recently. I do not put too much weight on this, but a party that set its face against means-testing, and has now contrived a system under the title of state pension credit that will require ever more means-testing, may have lost its anchors and may not be doing what it intends.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): On that point, is the hon. Gentleman recanting the view that he expressed last year that the state winter fuel benefit—a universal benefit—should be targeted, which would require more means-testing? Has he changed his mind?

Mr. Boswell: I recant nothing. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has become unduly excited about what I said last year but I shall repeat it. I did not think that the winter fuel benefit was particularly well targeted. [Interruption.] I shall give an explanation to the hon. Gentleman, who undoubtedly wanted to know the answer.

Later this year, I shall attain the age of 60 and I shall duly send off my form. The Minister has said that he wants as many people as possible to take up the benefit. No doubt I shall then receive my benefit, if the Department gets round to the administration.

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