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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. Is it not unfortunate that hon. Members—if I may say so, this evening's gathering is distinguished—cannot use this time to discuss important issues? I shall give one example: this morning, the independent inquiry into Gulf war illnesses was published. That issue is extremely important and many hon. Members have views on it. The House is sitting, so surely we can debate such important and urgent issues. Will the Chair make representations to either the Procedure Committee or the Leader of the House to see whether we can make good use of the time available to us on occasions such as this?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The hon. Gentleman is experienced in the ways and procedures of the House. He knows that the Order Paper is determined by the Government of the day and that the Chair can do nothing in these circumstances to alter that situation.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
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Can you help the House by confirming that a Minister can request to make a statement on a matter such as that described by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)? Will you confirm that nothing prevents Ministers from using the time available to come to the House and inform hon. Members about such matters, and allow themselves to be questioned?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Many things are possible, but the Chair has received no request from any Minister to attend the House at the present time.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that you could have been a little fairer with the Liberal Democrat representative, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). That earnest fellow always wants to talk about something or other, and I have a suggestion: the Liberal Democrats are keen on proportional representation and can bore people to tears by talking about it. They could explain why, some time ago, 26 Liberals voted for fox hunting and 26 Liberals voted against fox hunting, which is proportional representation—fair voting.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience of the ways and procedures of this House. However, he knows that hon. Members could discuss that matter only if the Government had put a motion on the Order Paper.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When gaps such as this occur in our proceedings, is it possible to arrange for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to attend and answer questions? Since he started his onerous duties, he has spoken at the Dispatch Box for only six minutes. My suggestion would give him the opportunity to answer questions such as, "What does he do with his time, for the taxpayers' £137,000 a year?"

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman must find another opportunity to discuss that matter—pursuing a point of procedure here will not do it.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not the real issue that we shall shortly be waiting in this House not for the Members of the other place to deliberate, but for them to finish their dinner?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Chair has cognisance of many things, but that does not extend to knowing what is happening in the other place.

7.4 pm

Sitting suspended.

8.45 pm

On resuming—

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Pensions Bill

Before Clause 229

Lords amendment in lieu of a Lords amendment disagreed to by this House, considered.

Lords amendment: No. 359B.

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Mr.   Speaker has brought to the attention of the House the fact that Lords amendment 359A—like its predecessor, which we debated yesterday evening—involves the question of Commons privilege; and, like its predecessor, it relates to financial matters in regard to which it is the role of the Lords to agree not to initiate or to amend.

Taxation arrangements made by this House would be altered if the amendment were to be brought into effect. The amendment allows annuities not to be paid where they might otherwise be paid; it extends tax relief by allowing more people in some circumstances to pass their tax-privileged pension funds on to their survivors tax-free; it allows, in some circumstances, for contributions to be made to pension schemes by people up to the age of 85; and it reduces the number of instances in which part of the tax relief given on contributions is recouped when the annuity is paid.

As I said yesterday—

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry if I missed something in your earlier remarks, but I seek your guidance on Mr. Speaker's ruling on whether Lords amendment No. 359B involves privilege. Having consulted the document before us, I can see no judgment on the issue.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): The hon. Gentleman is correct. Lords amendment No. 359B does involve privilege.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Although I did not quite understand why, the Minister seemed to be speaking to Lords amendment No. 359A.

Madam Deputy Speaker: We are discussing Lords amendment No. 359B.

Malcolm Wicks: Indeed. If I mis-spoke—as I think certain American Presidents occasionally do—I apologise.

As I said yesterday, the Government recognise the underlying and serious issues relating to greater longevity and demographic shifts in this country, and indeed throughout the developed world. They have profound implications for the way in which our pensions policies should be implemented. We set up the Pensions Commission under Adair Turner to review the regime for UK private pensions and long-term savings. Its first report, published last month, provides a mine of detailed and valuable information on the demographic challenges that we face.

The Pensions Commission is considering whether the level of compulsion in the UK pensions system is appropriate. For those investing in a pension, the
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requirement to purchase an annuity at 75 with tax-privileged savings is one compulsory element of the existing system. As I have already said, once the commission has reported on the wider issues relating to compulsory saving, the Government will want to consider with care and urgency key issues, including annuitisation at the age of 75, and decide whether they remain fit for purpose.

We have recognised the high level of interest and are prepared to respond constructively and promptly, including on the specific issue of annuitisation as a priority action, once the Pensions Commission has reported.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): Would my hon. Friend speculate on whether, this weekend, we can expect "Focus" leaflets to say how the Liberals conspired to try to scuttle the pension protection fund, the financial assistance scheme and all the other good things in the Bill?

Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend reminds us that the Bill is not about annuities and the privileges enjoyed by the better-off and the very rich in society; it is about pension security for large numbers of people in final salary schemes, many of whom have been urging the House to take action. As the Minister responsible for the Bill, I have to say that, given the so-called ping-pong that is taking place, I am worried about the measure. We want to see it become an Act of Parliament so that the pension protection fund will be in place to protect workers from April this year. I am sure that common sense will prevail, whatever honest disagreements there may be on this issue, and that the other place will want the legislation to come into force as soon as possible.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does the Minister accept that the annuity regime was enacted in wholly different circumstances? Life expectancy has increased considerably since the legislation was enacted, and interest rates are far lower than the average that prevailed at that time. In the current circumstances, people have no incentive whatever to take out a private pension, so does not he accept that the whole matter must be looked into urgently?

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