State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry is all agog.

Maria Eagle: I shall ignore the hon. Gentleman's invitation to say something nasty about the hon. Member for Daventry.

The point at which the income is rewarded and the guaranteed minimum level couple's rate are £123 and £154 respectively. We add to that an amount equal to the couple rate plus the difference between the couple and single rates. That makes the personal guaranteed minimum for a man with two wives £208, giving a minimum income of £208, a maximum savings reward of £18.60—that is, £154 minus £123, times 60 per cent., the little formula to which we have become used. The taper would end at £254.50. The key point is that we are not treating such marriages any more generously for being such marriages. That is the best that we could aim for.

My suspicion, which I refused to put on record without a dictionary, that polygyny is the specific term for marriage with more than one wife, has been confirmed by my officials, who clearly have a dictionary and have looked up what polygyny means. I believe that polygamy means having more than one spouse—either a man with more than one wife or a woman with more than one husband. It is the generic term, with polyandry used to refer to the woman with more than husband and polygyny to the man with more than one wife. I hope that that clears

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up the dictionary questions; it seems a good point to sit down.

Mr. Clappison: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her explanations, not least the last one about the meaning of polygyny and, indeed, how to pronounce it. She pronounced it much better than I did. We have shed some light on this corner. Some have doubts about polygamous relationships, but we have avoided doubt about how much will be received through savings and pensions credits. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Patrick Mercer: This has been our raciest start yet. I am sorry that so much of the original ground has been swept from under my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and me.

In common with other parts of the Bill, clause 12 refers to regulations, which are the appropriate vessel when, following enactment, something is expected to vary over time. Will the Minister explain why we are debating a Bill whose detail is unknown to us in so many respects? If an issue can be decided and is unlikely to vary over time, it should be dealt with in the Bill itself. Why is it necessary to regulate the prescription of the level of pension credit awarded to those involved in polygamous marriages? Similar discussions took place in debates about other pensions legislation—the minimum income guarantee regulations and other income-related benefits, for example, which already make similar provisions. In the regulations proposed for polygamously married households, a special assessment is made of the amount of benefit payable. If the system used for payment of the current minimum income guarantee is deemed reasonable, I am confused about why we are again forced to debate the empty shell of a provision, only to have to fill it in later through regulation.

I understand that since August 1998 immigration legislation has prevented a polygamous wife settling in Great Britain with a husband if another is already in the country. Given that the number of polygamous households in Great Britain should diminish over time, surely lengthy discussions of this point are unnecessary and should be cleared up in the primary legislation. Sadly, I can provide no examples, but I should be grateful for clarification.

Maria Eagle: I shall try to deal with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. We are following a precedent in referring to polygamous marriages. Some Conservative Members, who were Ministers at the time, might recall section 133 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, which made similar provision for polygamous marriages and council tax benefit. We are only following a precedent set by the Conservatives.

We must make it clear that we will deal with the small number of relevant cases. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention changes in immigration rules, which will mean that the number of people affected will not increase, but decrease, over time. However, we wanted

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to make it clear that the few cases dealt with by the social security system here would be treated in respect of this benefit in the same way as others. The Bill is in many respects a framework Bill, so many regulations will develop out of its provisions to deal with the detail of benefits. As I said, we are following the precedent of the hon. Gentleman's party in including this specific instance in the Bill itself. I hope that that deals with the hon. Gentleman's points.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Transitional provisions

5.30 pm

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 36, in page 8, line 37, leave out from 'regulations' to 'to' in line 39.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 34, in page 8, line 40, at end insert

    'but without prejudice to the right of that person to request a fresh determination under section 8.'

Mr. Boswell: The amendment raises one or two primarily administrative points about the transitional period. I shall follow the numerical order of the amendments and deal first with amendment No. 34, which is relevant to some of the administrative points that I shall touch on in a moment.

The provision is that an assessed income period—this matter was discussed at length during the enforced absence of the Under-Secretary and myself this morning—may be normally no longer than five years and may be shorter. I am seeking a declaration from the Minister that there will be no circumstances in which a claimant loses out because that period is defined as a longer period. We shall come to the reasons why it is so defined in a moment. I do not think that there will be such a case, but I should like an assurance on the matter.

The issue is then about prescribing a longer assessed income period and why that is mentioned. The explanatory notes to the Bill, ever helpful, are quite interesting on that point. The set of arguments are perfectly understandable. The notes explain, for example, that people already on income support will not have to make a fresh application and go through a fresh form and all the rigmarole of a new claim for pension credit. It will be passported, to use a shorthand term, from their existing income support on to their pension credit.

I want to make a point of substance on that issue, to which the Help the Aged briefing refers. It quite reasonably says that not everyone who may benefit from the pension credit arrangements is now on the minimum income guarantee or income support. It says, of course, that the savings credit applies only to people over 65, and some may not be eligible for the guarantee credit. That organisation is concerned about protecting the entitlement of such people and providing a fast-track claims procedure for people who are waiting for their benefit. The Minister may like to reflect on that.

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There is also a general point about the administration of the benefit, which goes back to points that we made in the clause 10 stand part debate about the robustness of the IT systems for the Department. Let us consider the explanatory notes to clause 13(2) and amendment No. 36, which would remove the power to prescribe a longer period. The message from the notes is that many people will be coming on to pension credit in 2003, and on the assumption of a five-year assessment period, they will refresh their claims in 2008. I re-read the explanatory notes and did a double take because I had assumed that they would say 2003, but I read 2008. The Minister may want to comment on that.

It seems clear that there will be fewer people to have a renewed assessment period in 2008 than those in 2003. I think that the answer to the conundrum is that many of those in 2003 will be on income support and will be transferred to pension credit without a fresh set of procedures, whereas in 2008 they will all be asked to produce further details or there will be a discussion with the Pension Service as to whether their benefit should be modified. I was puzzled because if it was necessary to make that special provision for 2008, I am not sure that there may not also be a problem in 2003, when the benefit comes on-stream.

It is true that many of those people will already be on an income-related benefit such as income support and they will transfer to the new benefit. However, if we consider the mass of claimants in October 2003 and compare that with the potential mass of the re-claimants in 2008, it becomes clear that during that time many of them will have made a fresh application anyway if their incomes have declined or they have had another change of circumstances. Others—perhaps this is the most extreme change of circumstance—will sadly have died during the period. Others will go through the process for the second time during their life as a pensioner. The Minister should explain what the weight of cases may be between the two. The system may require changes, or people may be allowed further time in 2008 because of the rush of claims. I am concerned that the initial claims in 2003 will also overload the system, especially as they will be on an old computer system that may not be able to cope. Amendment No. 34 probes that issue, and I hope that the Minister will respond.

On amendment No. 36, I hope that the Minister can assure us that any extension of the period will not be to the detriment of the individual. We will not press the matter to a vote, but would like the Minister's assurance about what is going on. Even if everything is lickety-split, and there is no loss to the claimant, there is a danger that if the claimant has not received a form from it, the Pension Service may not pick up the fact that he or she is entitled to more benefit. As we know, there is a qualifying period for making claims for benefit. Someone may not have had contact with the Pension Service for the perfectly good reason of administrative overload. I am anxious that they should get back what they would have had within the usual five-year cycle if they had been invited to apply and had done so.

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