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Final Salary Pension Schemes

20. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): If he will make a statement on the number of final salary pension schemes that have closed since May 2002. [102964]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): The Green Paper acknowledges that the trend towards

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defined contribution schemes has accelerated over the past few years, but the trend should not be overstated. One hundred and nineteen defined benefit schemes have reported their closure to new members to the pensions schemes registry since May 2002, which is just over 1 per cent. of the total number of defined benefit schemes where members are still building up pension rights.

A number of companies—for example, Unilever, Centrica and John Lewis—have recently declared their desire to retain their existing pension arrangements, increasing their own, and in some instances their employees', contributions. That demonstrates partnership in action, an approach that the Government advocate.

Mr. Leigh : I thank the Minister for that answer, but the fact is that nobody denies that final salary schemes are in crisis. It might have been hoped that many people could find comfort in personal pension schemes, but the collapse in share prices over the past three years means that those are also in crisis. In the light of that difficulty facing pensioners, will the Minister make representations to his colleagues in the Treasury to the effect that it is high time that the changes to advance corporation tax—representing a tax on shares that has cost our pensioners £30 billion, or £5 billion a year—should be suspended so that we can at least for the time being, end this crisis, which is afflicting our pensioners so seriously?

Mr. McCartney: The crisis of confidence over private pensions started with the last Government and the mis-selling of £13.5 billion of pensions, and it took this Government to clear up the mess. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman, along with his colleagues on the Front Bench, should play a more active and positive role in replying to the response to the challenges put forward in the Green Paper. He might then get somewhere when he talks in such terms about the problems of second tier pensions. This Government are trying to sort out the problems caused by the last Government.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There are strong rumours outside the House that after this afternoon's emergency Cabinet meeting the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary will seek to make a statement. Have you received any notice of that? If you do receive such notice, do you intend to interrupt the business or, because it is timetabled business, to take the statement at the end of the business?

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) rose—

Mr. Speaker: On the same point of order, Mr. Burnett?

Mr. Burnett: No, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: There may well be a statement later today. As to its timing, the first business today is a guillotine motion providing for the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill to be taken through all its stages today. If the House agrees to that motion, I think it would be wrong for me to decide to interrupt the subsequent proceedings on the Bill on my own authority. The effect of that would be to truncate those proceedings still further and to contradict the order that the House had just made. But it is of course possible for the House itself to conclude proceedings on the Bill earlier than the scheduled time of 10 pm if Members decide that that would be desirable.

Mr. Burnett: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With his usual courtesy, the Attorney-General has informed me of his written opinion on the legality of the actions that the Government may soon be taking, or authorising, in Iraq. Given the seriousness of the matter, an oral statement followed by questions would have been more appropriate. Will you prevail upon the Solicitor-General to attend any subsequent debate on

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this matter to ensure that the Government's views on the legality of any action taken in Iraq may be challenged and debated?

Mr. Speaker: All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that I am sure that the Solicitor-General will have noted his comments.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On several occasions, the House has been promised a debate on the war before the shooting starts. Given that it appears as though the Americans are not depending on the element of surprise, the caveat about the safety of the troops does not apply. Given that the Leader of the House may not be in a position to redeem his commitment, is there a role for you in ensuring that the House debates the matter before any action starts?

Mr. Speaker: It is not a matter for me; it is for the Leader of the House to make a business statement.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Further to the point of order of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), Mr. Speaker. I want to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's comments about the Solicitor-General, which you hoped that she would hear. It is of the greatest importance that the Law Officers should advise not only the Government but Parliament. Law Officers should be present to state the proper ruling.

Mr. Speaker: I believe that that is the purpose of making the Law Officers' advice available.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Further to the first point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the event of your breaking in on our proceedings, will the time for the statement and for questioning a Minister be added to that which the debate should have had? As you know, it has already been cruelly guillotined.

Mr. Speaker: Let me put the hon. Gentleman's mind at ease. I shall not break into the Northern Ireland business if the House decides to carry the first item of business.

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Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill (Allocation of Time)

3.36 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,

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I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his absence. He will join us as soon as possible.

The Bill is the result of intensive negotiations that culminated at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March. Our aim during them was to find a way in which to rebuild the confidence and trust necessary to restore stable and inclusive devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

As will be explained on Second Reading, at the end of the negotiations, our judgment is that a shared understanding has been reached of the way in which the process can move forward. There is a genuine chance that we might shortly be in a position to complete the transition to a peaceful and democratic society in Northern Ireland. All parties now need time to reflect on our discussions on the way forward. The prize is the opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to cast their votes at an Assembly election on the basis of a set of working institutions. Without the Bill, the current Northern Ireland Assembly would be dissolved this Friday, the election campaign would start and there would be no political advance before the Assembly election on 1 May.

The Bill would postpone the dissolution of the current Assembly to 28 April and the date of the election to 29 May, thus allowing for a short delay to give the parties the opportunity to reflect.

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