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Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): As Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I am privileged in that I have the chance to get access to Ministers and to discuss these matters more often than other Members. I realise that colleagues want to contribute and that it is an official Opposition day, so I shall save my speech for another day and quickly make a couple of points.

The debate has been interesting and fascinating. It is the first time I have heard socialist dialectic discussed—by the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), both of whom think about such things carefully. That was a first for me and I have been a Member for more than 20 years. It was certainly a good thing.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) in his absence for being a bit prickly in an earlier intervention. Earlier this week, when I heard that a day was to be devoted to pensions, I was overjoyed. I thought that a full-day's debate would be a good chance to discuss something philosophically and strategically different. We have a new Secretary of State and a new opportunity, with the most comprehensive report that I have ever come across. It is certainly not the first report on the subject but it is the most comprehensive, drawing together all the evidence.

The report may not tell those of us in the Chamber who have studied the issue for a long time much that is blindingly new, but it brings the information together most effectively. It also gives the public the chance to enter the argument. We all know too much for our own good and we need to be very careful about that. Explaining pensions in a way that people can understand is difficult.

Talk of £57 billion does not mean an awful lot in real terms to ordinary people. Screaming headlines about black holes here and there, huge sums and arcane
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terminology turn people off. People in my constituency are already reconciled to the fact that they must work for longer. That is absolutely inevitable, so we must be realistic about that.

The extent of change is shown by what has happened in the course of one generation—my lifetime. My father was a railwayman all his life. He went to work at 16 and stopped at 62, after some bad health. He received a railway occupational pension and then died. My son and heir has just finished two rather expensive Glasgow university courses, at the hands of his parents, and has started work at 24. He works in the financial sector, so he is planning to retire at 55, and he will then live for another 30 or 35 years. In the space of one generation, that is a huge change, and we must respond to the extent of it when trying to make policy now for the next 50 years.

I do not care who is to blame for some of the decisions—some good, some bad—that have been made, but one thing is common to them: most of the policies were piecemeal; they were responses to the things that were going on at the time that people felt had to be addressed. Certainly some of them had to be addressed. I think that some means-testing, which is an important element in all this, was essential and that the Government had to introduce it to cope with the problem, but whether it is safe to found the policy for all time coming on that—I was pleased to read the reported remarks that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made at the party conference—is a very different and separate question.

This is an important opportunity. Ministers can serve the House and the debate best by keeping an open mind. The Secretary of State's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) is an important sign of that, and we and, I hope, the rest of the House will respond to it, as this is an important debate.

We also have to use the election, although its timing is uncertain. The electorate have something say about the issue. We must try to get the job done of simplifying the argument into understandable concepts—I believe that Turner does so—such as whether the solution lies in more tax, longer working lives or greater savings. People can understand discussions like that. We politicians—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) nearly got there during his interesting speech—should be explaining our priorities by theme, schematically, almost in terms of the philosophy of pensions. We should be explaining where we want to be in 50 years, which of the three elements to which Turner has adverted we want to use and what priority we should give to them.

Of course, parties must have manifestos, and it is too late to change them. Our manifesto is already more or less cut and dried—I am not giving away any state secrets about that—and I guess that so is everyone else's, more or less. I am not daft or naive enough to think that there will be no party political exchange and party political advantage sought in the debate that we must have, but we must try to get the public engaged in a discussion that is meaningful to them and that can feed back into our debate and the decision making that will flow from the election.
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My second point is the need for simplification, simplification, simplification. The job has been started. I did not serve on the Committee that considered the Pensions Bill, and I am grateful for that. I am also grateful for the content of the Pensions Bill in so far as it does simplify. I recognise that it is a good start, but it is only a start. If Ministers are to offer the best service that they can on this subject in the fullness of time, more work should be occasioned in that direction. Inevitably, trying to produce a system that people can understand, discuss and make reasoned choices about is an important part of that question.

This debate has been useful and I congratulate the Conservative Opposition on initiating it. I hope that we will have more like it, and I look forward to the Turner report informing such debates positively in future.

5.19 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I, too, am pleased to take part in today's debate. Like the Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions—I keep thinking of him as my right hon. Friend—when I saw the motion on the Order Paper, I thought that this would be a chance to debate the future of UK pensions and something that would be robust, intellectual and possibly even provide us with some new thinking about a way forward, around which all hon. Members could perhaps begin to build consensus. This is something for the long term; it is not a quick fix.

I, too, was disappointed by the opening speech of the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). It was party political knockabout. I appreciate that that is part of the style of Opposition day debates but the day after the publication of one of the biggest reports into the structure of, and what is happening in, the pension system is the day to put such arguments aside and to consider what we might do for the future. We should consider the issues with which we should engage. Many hon. Members have begun to float ideas and, in the best possible sense, there has been disagreement even among Members on the same side as they have tried out new ideas. However, there has also been consensus across the Floor.

I commend the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which was thoughtful and laid out the parameters of what we should be discussing. Much as it pains me to say something nice about the Liberals, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) also made a thoughtful contribution to the debate.

The pension credit has come in for much criticism today, but it is worth remembering that it was introduced to deal with the specific problems that we inherited when we came to power in 1997. Old age pensioners were dying from hypothermia or going blind because they did not want to spend their money on eye tests. Some pensioners were struggling to feed or clothe themselves or even just to live. The Government had to do something about that, so we introduced the winter fuel allowance, which—thank goodness—means that we do not hear scary statistics every winter about the number of pensioners who have died because they were frightened to put a coin in the meter.
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Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recall that a previous Minister, Edwina Currie, advised pensioners who were suffering from hypothermia to go to charity shops to buy extra woolly clothing? Will my hon. Friend compare and contrast that with our record?

Miss Begg: Pensioners can now go to high quality shops to buy their winter clothing if they so desire, because we have given pensioners the money to make such choices. I am sure that not all pensioners always use their winter fuel allowance for fuel, but that is their choice.

I visited a pensioner's house in a multi-storey block of flats at the weekend. A new combined heat and power system has been introduced, and that has kept the costs of the heating down. Previously, the block had electric storage heaters that were incredibly expensive to run, but this pensioner will now be able to heat her house and have money left over from the winter fuel allowance. I thought that "Heat your house for free thanks to this Labour Government" might make a nice headline for the next election. That, after all, is what has happened.

We also introduced free eye tests for old age pensioners to remove their fear about having to spend money to have their eyes tested. We introduced the pension credit, and I am extremely proud of it and what it has done. I spent the summer recess going round most of the sheltered housing complexes in my constituency. As with the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), most of the pensioners I spoke to are incredibly and surprisingly happy. They were as nice to me as they have been in the seven years since I was elected. That said, the summer in which the basic state pension increased by only 75p was a rough one, but this summer I thought that the Government were getting somewhere.

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