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Mr. Webb: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Maria Eagle: I am coming to the close of my speech.

The hon. Gentleman's policy of abolishing the state second pension would disadvantage today's working women who are carers or in low-paid jobs, who have broken work records or who are disabled. Currently, they are accruing a better second-tier unfunded state pension than SERPS ever offered them. His policy document admits that the state second pension is redistributive. His answer? Abolish it. I am forced to

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conclude that his rhetoric about helping women is hollow, because his policy prescriptions would do the opposite.

Only the Labour party is committed to tackling pensioner poverty and ensuring the long-term future of occupational pension provision in this country by carrying forward the necessary reforms, building on what is good in our system. I commend the amendment to the House.

5.50 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I thought the Minister was rather defensive on a number of issues, and well she might be. It is all very well to trot out the old Labour lie about 20 per cent. cuts, but what we want to cut is tuition fees. We want to cut the bureaucracy that Labour has introduced that means we now have more administrators than beds in the NHS. We want to cut pensioner poverty. We want to take action, not just speak words.

You know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is a shocking thing that, with the pensions crisis that this country is facing at the moment, all we get from the Government is consultation. It is a consultation culture. We counted 38 consultations, but when we asked the Government how many consultations they had on pensions, they said they could not answer the question because of disproportionate costs. That shows what they are doing. They have this problem, which has emerged largely as a result of their own action. All they do is talk, talk, and have consultation after consultation—a consultation culture and no action.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) rightly said, through the Chancellor's £5 billion a year pensions tax, first imposed in 1997, the Government have taken tens of billions of pounds from British pension funds and British pensioners. It is no wonder that since Labour came to power, the gap between the richest and poorest pensioners, as shown in independent evidence, has grown substantially. One has only to look at the crisis of Equitable Life to see the body blows that there have been to morale for pensioners and pension scheme members throughout the country.

There is more to come. In the mid-1990s the Government used to criticise us because there were 600,000 people who did not claim the help to which they were entitled. Now it is 700,000 and, as the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) rightly pointed out, that is set to rise to a staggering 1 million in 2006.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Would the hon. Gentleman recognise a simple point of mathematics—that if more people are entitled, it is very possible that more are not claiming the amount to which they are entitled? Is it not the case that the party that he represents, when it was in government, ensured that as few as possible were entitled to as little as possible?

Mr. Heald: How sad it is for someone who campaigned for better circumstances to be so self-satisfied and complacent about this issue. How can a Labour Government seriously say that their target for

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2006—three years' time—is to be 300,000 worse in terms of take-up by the poorest pensioners in this country than we are today?

Mr. Bercow : Given that the increased complexity of the Government's means-tested benefits system has meant that hundreds of thousands of elderly pensioners have not received their dues on time or have not received them at all, does my hon. Friend agree that the plight of those poor pensioners is thrown into stark relief by the fact that many Ministers whose Department's public service agreement targets have been missed have been promoted and many other Ministers whose Department's targets have been met have yet been sacked?

Mr. Heald: Yes; my hon. Friend makes an important point. And is it not surprising that the Department of Trade and Industry document about rewards for failure did not cover Government Ministers?

It is pensioners and pension scheme members throughout the country who are being hardest hit by the Government's policies. One only has to think of the workers at Allied Steel and Wire, who are coming to London to march following the effective winding-up of their schemes, and those at Blyth and Blyth in Scotland, following the announcement last week, and those at 50 other companies, to see that action is needed to reform the law on the winding-up of pensions.

We had a debate about that earlier this year but we have seen no detailed proposals. It has been left to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), as usual, to come forward with constructive proposals that we can all support and debate.

Kevin Brennan: Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House who introduced the provisions under which pensioners from Allied Steel and Wire are not entitled to anything as a result of the company going bust?

Mr. Heald: It is correct that a Conservative Government introduced the measure in 1995 but the hon. Gentleman should be aware that the protection offered then to a 40-year-old working man if a company became insolvent was about 78 per cent. of his pension scheme entitlement and the protection for a 60-year-old working man was more than 95 per cent. Such levels of protection have collapsed because the Government have allowed the protection available under the Pensions Act 1995 to become deeply eroded.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heald: I have only limited time.

It is shocking that only the Opposition secure or propose debates on pensions issues. The Government have not initiated a substantial debate on pensions policy since 23 March 2000. There was a Minister with responsibility for pensions at that time: Lord Rooker, as he is now. In the debate, he explained how the proposals in the 1998 Green Paper on pensions set out a long-term reform programme for the next 50 years. As I said, yet another Green Paper has been published. It is time that

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the Under-Secretary said a little more than "shortly" or "soon" in response to questions on when we will have the debate on the Green Paper that was promised in January—we have not had a full-day debate after six months. Will the Minister assure us that the White Paper will be published before the summer recess—she does not have to tell us that it will be published next week?

Maria Eagle: Yes.

Mr. Heald: Well, we have made a bit of progress and I am very grateful for that.

Mr. Frank Field: This summer recess?

Mr. Heald: The right hon. Gentleman asks whether the White Paper will be published before this summer recess; let us hope it will be.

The Prime Minister's website sets out a list of Ministers. It shows the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and says that he has overall responsibility for his Department. There is a marvellous picture of the Minister for Work and his duties are set out. There is then the heading "Minister for Pensions". The name and photograph are blank but that Minister's responsibilities are outlined: basic pension; state earnings related pension; state second pension; stakeholder and private pensions; occupational pensions; the national insurance fund and national insurance recording system; pension credit; Pension Service; minimum income guarantee; and the inter-ministerial group for older people. One would have thought that those responsibilities were associated with an important job that could not remain vacant for two months. It is clear that the Prime Minister is happy to appoint the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) as chairman of the Labour party for the party's internal convenience, but when it comes to the deep needs of pensioners in our country, he is prepared to leave things and let them ride. The Government think that it is more important to appoint new junior Ministers in the Home Office or other Departments than to appoint a Minister to deal with the important pensions matters that affect so many of the most vulnerable people in the country.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heald: In a moment.

I wish to press the Minister a little more on the Chancellor's plans to introduce a new index for inflation: the harmonised index of consumer prices, which is the European measure of inflation. He wants to introduce that because he wants harmonisation with Europe ahead of a possible decision that this country should enter economic and monetary union—the euro.

However, the harmonised index of consumer prices, known as HICP and pronounced "hiccup", is a much lower measure of inflation than the retail prices index. One reason for that is that HICP does not include council tax, which has increased by 60 per cent. in recent years. Had HICP been applied since 1997, pension

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increases over the past six years would have been half those that took place under RPI. In paving the way for the euro, the Chancellor is possibly damaging the future income levels of pensioners who rely on the basic state pension.

During Question Time on 14 April, the Under-Secretary was asked to give an assurance that the planned changes would not affect the annual uprating of pensions and other benefits. She tried to pass the buck to the Chancellor by saying:

I never let such things go. The House will be pleased to know that about two hours later, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) took the point up in the Budget debate. He asked the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary about that at column 713 and both failed pointblank to say that pensioners would be no worse off if HICP were introduced.

Will the Under-Secretary or the Minister make a categorical statement at the Dispatch Box about what will happen to the uprating of pensions and other benefits following the introduction of the HICP measure? It is not good enough for Ministers in a Department with responsibility for pensions to shuffle the problem off to the Chancellor who is not prepared to give an answer. Millions of pensioners deserve an answer.

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