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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that Ros Altmann's proposal would not cost the Government anything for five years, and that it would cost £100 million a year after that? When Ros Altmann carefully costed the scheme, one problem she faced was the lack of data on the number of people.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is right that the crucial problem that she faced was lack of data. We must be careful, but those people are at least using their best endeavours to try to tackle the problem—Ministers have offered no constructive suggestions whatever. I must tell the Secretary of State that I do not believe, given the strong feelings on both sides of the House, that the current position is sustainable. He will not be able to hold his current position for much longer. A number of Government and Opposition Members have signed the two early-day motions on the subject, which is evidence of how strongly we all feel when people who have tried to do the right thing and put money into their company pension schemes find themselves facing serious financial distress.

We are willing to be realistic about the matter. We are not absolutists and we know that it may not be possible to do everything, much as we would like to be able to do so. We know that we cannot do everything, but we must do something. The Government are doing nothing, which is why I urge the House to back our motion.

4.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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I am more than happy to set the record and proposals of this Labour Government against those of the Conservative party any day of the week. The motions in these debates are often not referred to and are perhaps not read as closely as they should be. The Opposition motion this evening merits attention because it reveals the utter emptiness of the posturing by Conservative Front Benchers on these vital issues. It contains not one single positive proposal about what the Conservative party would do to help those affected by pension scheme wind-ups. As usual, Conservative Members allege that £35 billion has been removed from pension funds in taxes, but do they favour either the reinstatement or the reversal of that policy? No, they do not. They feign surprise at the Government's position on an independent inquiry, but do they propose one? No, they do not. They call for urgent action, but do they say what form it should take? No, they do not. The motion and the speech by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) were high on rhetoric, condemnation and regret, but utterly bereft of any positive proposal whatsoever.

Mr. Garnier: The Secretary of State is reading a speech written before he listened to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant. One disadvantage of that is that he is wholly failing to take into account what he heard. He mentioned emptiness; not far from this House, there is an empty dome wasting Government and public money. Why do the Government not sell it quickly and save the day-by-day revenue costs of keeping it open?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Garnier: They could use the money—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention is going on far too long.

Mr. Smith: On the hon. and learned Gentleman's first point, I was addressing the Opposition motion that we are debating, and I shall address each of the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Havant. Conservative Members go on about these issues, but

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their motion contains no proposal that would help the situation. Despite reports in The Daily Telegraph that they would call for compensation in this debate, the motion and the remarks of the hon. Member for Havant contain no such call. That is not surprising, because Conservative Back Benchers have been urged not to sign the early-day motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan).

Mr. Jim Cunningham: Did my right hon. Friend notice that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) failed to mention the fact that the mis-selling of pensions occurred under the Conservative Government? The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Pensions Act 1995, but the Conservatives took no action to address the problem, despite the fact that Labour Members were tabling early-day motions calling for compensation for the people affected. The Labour Government took action when they set up the Financial Services Authority.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend makes some good points and I shall come to the mis-selling issue later.

Despite the measured tones of the hon. Member for Havant and his offers of collaboration and consensus, his speech was opportunist and opposition for opposition's sake; it was not a positive contribution to the pensions challenges facing the country. It was certainly no comfort to people who are worried about the security of their pension.

Sir John Butterfill: The majority of Opposition Members have not signed the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) because it contains two fundamental inaccuracies. The first is that people were compelled to join pension schemes, whereas, as I said earlier, the previous Conservative Government abolished that compulsion in 1986. The second is that the motion asserts that the Government had guaranteed people's pensions, but neither the Labour Government nor any previous Government have given any such guarantee on private sector pensions.

Mr. Smith: Given the hon. Gentleman's expertise and experience in these matters, I take careful note of his points.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): A few moments ago, the Secretary of State said that the Opposition fail to read the motions on the Order Paper in debates such as this, but may I draw his attention to a sentence in the Government's amendment? It states that they believe that

I agree. Will the Government pass legislation to put that statement into effect?

Mr. Smith: Yes, indeed. That is why we shall debate the Second Reading of the Pensions Bill next week; it is also why we laid the full buy-out regulations before the House yesterday.

Sir Peter Tapsell: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, but I was referring not to the

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minimum funding requirement, which is a snare and a delusion, but to the full pensions that people in final salary schemes confidently expected to receive when they reached retirement.

Mr. Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I think that he is embarrassing his Front-Bench colleagues by referring to the MFR as a snare and a delusion; only a few moments ago, the hon. Member for Havant was telling us what a wonderful thing it was until the wicked Labour Government came along and made it all go wrong.

There is serious content in the comments of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). Like him, I believe that a pension promise made should be a pension promise honoured. That is why we introduced the full buy-out regulations, which will require solvent companies to meet their pension obligations in full, and it is why the Pensions Bill, which will have its Second Reading next week, includes a proposal for a levy-based pension protection fund to ensure 100 per cent. of pensions in payment, with 90 per cent. for those not yet receiving their pension, which is in common with other compensation schemes. The Government are acting in the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's request and in line with what the vast majority of workers and other people want.

The hon. Member for Havant called for reliable information, but in this field that has been difficult to come by. The pensions scheme registry maintains a record of schemes in wind-up, but there can be delays in its receipt of that information and it does not necessarily know about the solvency of the reported schemes. The Opposition motion calls for an inquiry to establish the extent of the problem. Elsewhere in the motion, there is a stab at assessing the extent of the problem, which is estimated to affect 60,000 people. I must stress that data limitations make it difficult to be precise, but, on the evidence that I have seen, 60,000 seems to be the right estimate of the scale of the challenge we face.

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