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Kevin Brennan: I join in the welcome for the Bill. I particularly welcome the changes that were made yesterday through the incorporation of new clause 24 and assistance for those who have potentially lost their pensions as a result of insolvency. I echo the comments of other hon. Members who have spoken about the need to ensure that, in working out the detail of the package, the assistance for those workers is substantial. That was the word I used yesterday, and "significant" has been used today. It is vital that that happens and I believe that it is the Government's intention. We look forward to seeing the detail as it emerges but I fully understand that it is impossible for it to emerge now.
I have probably said far too much about the subject in the past couple of years, so I thought that on Third Reading I would simply do the honours and pay tribute to a few hon. Members who have been particularly active. The newspapers recently described the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) as the Tories' youthful Tony Blair. They appeared to believe that the hon. Gentleman was younger than he is and gave the impression that his pensions expertise was remarkable since his only recent dealings with finance had been with his pocket money. That is not so: he has acquired much expertise.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), who detained us for rather a long time this afternoon, has brought his wit to most of our proceedings. After his comments today, he may become known as the hon. Member for Wither-on-the-Vine. The hon. Gentleman thanked people from outside who had helped with the Bill, and has the admirable quality of being able to present the views of those outside without venturing an opinion of his own.
The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) is sadly not in his place. I accidentally got hold of some of his notes, including a couple of the "what ifs?" that he did
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not ask about, the first of which was, "What if a great flood were to cover the earth and sweep away all pensioners' records?", and the second of which was, "What if a large comet were to land and destroy the pension protection fund headquarters?" I think perhaps the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) might have given him that particular "what if?".
I should like to thank my very good hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), who was sneakily running caption competitions for the paintings in the Committee Room, but should be mentioned none the less.
I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson). As Wellington might have said, "I don't know what they do to the enemy, but they certainly scare the life out of me." They held the Government properly to account with the many amendments that they tabled, and in doing so made sure that the rights of workers were being championed in Committee.
I could not end without mentioning my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions. He has the features and demeanour of an urbane Roman governor in a sleepy outpost of empire. That is not a very good description of the Department for Work and Pensions, which is not a sleepy outpost but an absolutely vital Department at the heart of the Governmentand a very successful one, as we have seen during our deliberations on the Bill.
I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) developing his own line in stand-up comedy here in the Chamber last night. Apparently it is not true that he is going to combine his skills as a pensions expert with his new-found comic talents to star in a new British comedy film called "Love Actuary". [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] That was pretty bad, was it not? Enough of this.
Finally, I should like seriously to thank the Secretary of State for his efforts on the Bill, and his Bill team, who have rightly been mentioned and who have had to work extremely hard. In my view my right hon. Friend is a thoroughly decent man. The fact that this is one of the most progressiveif not the most progressivepieces of legislation that we have seen for some time is entirely due to his thoroughly decent instincts. Those instincts were in evidence when he met the many workers from around the countrynot only from Allied Steel and Wire but from many other companieswho impressed him with their human stories. He then had the imagination to see beyond the standard bureaucratic answer that it was "not on", or impossible to act retrospectively. He saw beyond that to the human reality of the situation facing those people, and I believe that that is a major reason why the Bill now contains provisions to help them.
We have conducted our proceedings with good spirit, and I pay tribute to every party represented. Members on both sides have attempted to scrutinise the Bill in good spirit most of the time. We have done our job, and it is now up to the other place to finish off the details. I believe that we shall be able to look back on these proceedings not in anger but with pride in the years to come, and I commend the Bill to the House.
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Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The Government cannot solve every problem in society, but where there are clear examples of personal tragedy and the ability exists for the Government to do something about them, they have a clear duty to do so. This Government have faced up to that duty. The provisions that are being introduced to deal with insolvent employers are to be welcomed, although only as a first step. Many other steps will need to be taken to address this problem as time goes on. It is, however, a major step in the right direction, in terms of the principle that has been adopted. It will not solve all the problems of those who have lost out when a firm has become insolvent, but at least it is a start. Many other questions about the extent of compensation or assistance are bound to arise.
The Government have put forward £400 million over 20 years to help to address the serious losses that some people now face. I fear that that will not nearly be enough, but I welcome the fact that the legislation, the figures and the amounts will be reviewed every three years.
No one can deny the financial disaster faced by those who have paid into company pensions for decades to look after themselves and their families in old age only to find that the money has gone and their retirement has been ruined, and that the security for which they paid during their working lives has been wiped out through no fault of their own. In Northern Ireland, we have many examples of that personal economic disaster. My party colleagues in Northern Ireland, along with many others all over the United Kingdom, have campaigned on behalf of those who have lost out. The case of Richardsons Fertilizers in Northern Ireland in particular, and the need for action, has been highlighted. My hon. Friends the Members for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) have been particularly active on that issue, as some of those most affected have been from their constituencies.
There is also a serious concern about the loophole in the case of companies that do not declare insolvency but decide to uproot and move to other parts of the world, leaving a deficit in the pension scheme. I was pleased to hear yesterday that the Minister gave an undertaking that an Order in Council would be introduced to ensure that this Bill would apply to Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland welcome that. It is right that the people of Northern Ireland should receive the same compensation, at the same time, as everyone else in the United Kingdom.
That case not only highlights the fact that the same provisions should exist in relation to pensions throughout the United Kingdom, but strengthens the argument that the same legislation should extend right across the UK. Even were devolution up and running in Northern Ireland, the ability of Northern Ireland to legislate on matters such as pensions and benefits is really just theoretical, because we must bow to the parity argument. It may be wise to consider the issue of pensions and benefits in the same way as income tax, and have one set of legislation for the entire United Kingdom.
There are few examples today of Governments reacting to pressure or campaigns, but this has been an exception. All those, including Labour Members,
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members of various other parties and ordinary people, who have fought a good fight in this case have been at least partially rewarded. These provisions are to be welcomed, but the battle to protect those who have lost out through no fault of their own will have to continue, and I am sure that the Government recognise that.
John Robertson : I was not ready for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker[Laughter.] Perhaps I should explain some of the laughter, Sir. Having sat here for all of Tuesday, and having lost half my amendments towards the end of the day, and having come in yesterday to see that there was no chance of getting in, today would appear to have been another chance lost. Obviously, you have seen the error of my ways and picked me, and I am grateful for it.
I would like to use this opportunity to take a brief overview of the Bill as amended, to consider how we got here and what lessons have been learned. In many ways, the progress of the Pensions Bill has shown the House of Commons at its best.
First, the substance of the Bill is important in rebutting the arguments of those who say that politics cannot make a difference. Few issues are of greater long-term importance to us than how we will support ourselves when we are too old to work. For that reason, the risk of workers contributing to their pension, sometimes for 40 years, only to see it vanish overnight, is rightly viewed with horror and fear by most people. The Pensions Bill ends that scandal. It makes a difference.
Secondly, the work done by Ministers, Labour Back Benchers and the Opposition has at times been fruitful. It has even been quite funny on some occasions. Like many hon. Members, on Second Reading I welcomed both the principles behind the Bill and the measures introduced. Again like many other Members, I asked the Minister to offer help to people who had already lost most of, in some cases all of, their final salary pensions when their employers had gone bust. Our arguments were pressed further in Committee, and were the subject of subsequent Government amendments. Opposition and Back-Bench Members played their part, and we can all have a sense of shared ownership of the Bill's final content.
I hope, as the Minister hoped yesterday, that a degree of consensus has been engendered that will enable all Members to support the Bill as it stands. My only concerns relate to the way in which the Report stage was conducted. Owing to the sheer number of Government amendments, there was not enough time for us to consider many of those tabled by Opposition and Back-Bench Members. The other day my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and I tabled several amendments that were reached with minutes to spare before 7 pm. That meant that important issues such as implementation of the Government's commitment to extending the protection afforded by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 could not be afforded the discussion that they deserved.
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The TUC, Amicus, Connect and other unions want to ensure that no pension scheme member faces inadequate pension protection as a result of a TUPE transfer. That is why we tabled an amendment to clause 229 with the simple requirement that the receiving employer provide benefits broadly comparable, or of broadly equal value, to the benefits provided by the original scheme. Sadly, the amendment was negatived, but it is important for us not to lose sight of all that has been achieved. Clauses 228 and 229, for instance, introduce a minimum level of pension protection where a business transfer occurs and the TUPE regulations apply. In declining to accept my amendment, my hon. Friend the Minister asked me to acknowledge the progress that had been made, and I am more than happy to do so.
On Second Reading, I described the Bill as the antithesis of laissez-faire Thatcherism. It sets out clearly the Government's responsibility to their citizens. In arguing for more support for pensioners, the hon. Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) have happily jettisoned the ideology that we owe no duty to those of our fellow men and women in need. Lady Thatcher must be seething in the other place at that ideological inconsistency, but if it is any consolation to those hon. Members, I welcome their change of heart.
I was rather saddened when the hon. Member for Eastbourne said he would not stand behind the PPF in the future. The Opposition parties seem to be taking a Scrooge-like attitude on Third Reading. Hopefully, when Christmas day comes along they, like Scrooge, will look out of the window and say "We were only kidding: go and get that big goose".
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