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Mr. Bercow: Or of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Forth: Indeed, as my hon. Friend says, or of the Secretary of State, but let us leave the Secretary of State out of this for the moment; we might bring him back a bit later because he is mentioned in the motion, thus giving us ample scope.

What worries me about the institution of ombudsmen—taken some years ago from Scandinavia, as I recall—is that, generally speaking, they have few, if any, powers.

Malcolm Wicks: Europe.

Mr. Forth: The Minister says, "Europe". I shall get him into Hansard; I am generous in that way. Of course, some parts of Europe have been extraordinarily sensible: the Norwegians, who are a favourite of these occasions, are a shining example to us all in matters European. I often wish that we could emulate them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House and he knows that this is not the occasion for a general dissertation on the origins of ombudsmen.

Mr. Forth: Nor, indeed, Norway, when it comes to that. The Minister did provoke me, but I will try to resist his blandishments.

Leaving aside the origins of the institution of ombudsman for a moment, I was going to say that I am unhappy about the appearance of the ombudsman in this Ways and Means resolution because I am not convinced that ombudsmen are the great power for good that everybody seems to have come to accept that
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they are. I say that not only because they may have been appointed by the Secretary of State, which immediately puts a question mark over their usefulness, but because, generally speaking, they have no powers. We therefore get frustrated citizens coming to us time and time again because they expected miracles of this or that ombudsman, only to find subsequently that very little happened as a result of the ombudsman's ruling.

Mr. Webb: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and it is always a joy to watch a master at work. Which aspect of the powers that the Bill gives the PPF ombudsman does the right hon. Gentleman think are inadequate?

Mr. Forth: I would say—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is being tempted way beyond the scope of the motion. We are not discussing whether there should be an ombudsman; we are simply discussing how he should be funded.

Mr. Forth: Yes, indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am devastated that I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman a comprehensive reply. Perhaps we will leave that for another day; indeed, it might even be tomorrow if we follow the example of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon).

The proposition that the Minister has brought before us is that the operation of the ombudsman will be paid for by the levy, which has quite rightly become the main object of our attention in the debate because it is the reason why the Ways and Means resolution has had to be brought to the House. Quite rightly, therefore, we are involved in a proper debate about the nature of the levy. This debate takes place against the background of the fact that, as we all know, the whole pensions industry—the whole institution of pensions in this country—is under severe strain and likely, sadly, to continue to be so. As if to add insult to injury, the Government have come forward with additional bureaucracy, whose virtues I am unable to extol because of your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I have no problem with that at all. However, this additional bureaucracy will involve additional cost and will therefore give rise to a levy on the very pension funds that are already under strain. That simply adds to the general accusation that we can make against the Government that the pensions industry is in dire straits largely because of actions taken by the Government over a period of time. Sadly, the resolution, which we are being asked to approve, will add to that phenomenon; it does not help the industry in any way. Personally, I would question whether it helps pension holders or beneficiaries, but we are not here to explore that on this occasion, are we Mr. Deputy Speaker?

So, we have the levy. The Minister tried to reassure us by saying that we were not to be too worried about it, because it would cost a mere £1.5 million—he threw that figure in as if it were a bagatelle. We are all too used now to Ministers coming to the House and bandying such figures around as if they were of no consequence whatever. Of course, to Ministers in this Government, a million here, a million there and a billion somewhere else are of little consequence. However, if they spend a
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billion here and a billion there, it adds up to real money in the end. Therefore, it is our duty as representatives of taxpayers or indeed, as on this occasion, of pension holders to worry about such things and to wonder whether this £1.5 million will be well spent and whether there will truly be beneficiaries. Lurking at the back of my mind is the suspicion that this may be yet another bureaucracy or yet another enhancement to an existing bureaucracy—it really makes very little difference—that has little or no benefit in the end.

Under the guise of this apparently innocuous Ways and Means resolution, there lurk all sorts of very worrying issues—the levy, the amount of the levy, the bureaucracy that will be created and, worst of all perhaps, the Minister's assertion that we need not worry, because the Secretary of State will see it all right in the end. I am sure that the Minister has the greatest respect for the Secretary of State, and would that he were with us today to give us some reassurance as to how the independence of this person whom he will appoint will be maintained. Again, however, that is not something that we should be pursuing on this occasion. However, the thought must linger.

So, all in all, this apparently innocuous little measure has a number of very unsatisfactory aspects.

Mr. Bercow: I am reluctant to have to chide publicly my right hon. Friend, but it really is about time, after his 21 years in the House, that he told us what he really thinks. His tendency to self-effacement is pretty unsatisfactory. I want the gravamen behind his argument to be clear in my mind. Is he saying to the House that the problem with the ombudsman will be that he or she will tend to be the craven lickspittle of the Government, that he or she will make no decisions, or that he or she will, in the end, be inclined simply to prevaricate?

Mr. Forth rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I can save the right hon. Gentleman the embarrassment of having to respond to that dangerous intervention. We are not discussing that matter today, but simply the cost of the ombudsman.

Mr. Forth: Yes, indeed, which prevents me from saying that I could not agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not want to say that in these circumstances. I am grateful to my hon. Friend because given that the resolution refers explicitly to the ombudsman, we must give a passing thought to whether we will get value for money from the levy that is linked to the ombudsman. That gives rise to speculation about how effective the ombudsman might be, which was, I think, the point that my hon. Friend was trying to get at, although I would of course not dream of pursuing it because it is not for me to dwell on lickspittles, prevarication, or any other aspect of what the ombudsman might be able to do on behalf of pension holders.

The Minister will have to do much better than he did in his opening remarks to persuade me and, I suspect, one or two of my hon. Friends, that we should approve the Ways and Means resolution. Perhaps it should be
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taken away and thought about for a longer time so that we can spare such a burden from the already over-burdened holders of pensions.

5.51 pm

Malcolm Wicks: With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the debate.

I understand that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) regularly entertains the House on Fridays with such fearless scrutiny. It makes me sad that I cannot be here to see it more often, but my constituency engagements often make me busy on Fridays and I fully intend that to remain the case.

I shall not say that this debate is much ado about nothing, because it has something to do with public spending—I certainly do not wish to provoke the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst into another speech. However, we are talking about a relatively small amount of public money.

I was not quite sure what the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) was saying, which was a difficulty that I had with him in recent months in Committee. I think the Tories' position, despite the variety of views expressed by their renegade Back Benchers, is that they support the ombudsman, but I am unclear about how they would pay for it. The hon. Gentleman talks about stealth taxes on business, but if he is against funding the ombudsman through schemes, he is saying, by implication, that the taxpayer should fund it. Why? I can tell the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) that having reflected on the matter, we thought that it would be fairer for schemes to pay for the ombudsman. The Tory position is, as usual, absolutely unclear. I shall not be tempted into talking about risk-based or flat-rate levies because they are not relevant to the modest, yet important, motion.

The levy will be relatively small. The £1.5 million figure that I cited is the current cost incurred through the pensions ombudsman. If that were replicated for the pension protection fund ombudsman, the cost would be 10p per member per year. However, we expect the cost to be much less—no more than perhaps 6p per member per year. Although I appreciate what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, we are talking about only a few pence per year, which must be far less than the cost of several hon. Members' fearless scrutiny of legislation in the House of Commons—important and vital though some would no doubt say that that is.

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