Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill

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Mr. Howarth: Before the Minister sits down, I have one more question to ask. I am grateful for some of his comments, but there has been an awful lot of, ''We're going to'', and, ''We've got in hand'', which I do not find hugely reassuring. For example, will he say categorically whether a computer system for the comparative individual statements is up and running? Is there a programme for it and are people operating it? I am confident his reply will be helpful.

Mr. Caplin: The answer on whether there is a computer system today is no. Is someone working on a programme to produce the relevant statements? Yes. That is why I made the opening statement on the various project teams, including a communications team, working in the Ministry of Defence, which will deliver such changes.

Mr. Howarth: So there is no computer system working yet, although there are people working on it. I return to my point about the 2005 implementation date: when does the Minister expect to be able to report to Parliament that the system is up and running, including a date on which our constituents may expect to receive the product of the system—namely, their individual comparative benefit statements?

Mr. Caplin: I know that this is difficult for members of the Committee to believe, given how IT systems develop, but I said that we have people working on a programme, not working on a system. I make that distinction for the record. The work to identify the appropriate system is in hand, and there are people working on it. This is a huge issue.

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There are other, similar systems; we are not trying to re-invent the wheel. We have obviously considered the civil service scheme, which went before us, so we are not re-inventing the processes. I believe that that is acceptable.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not commit myself to a date on which to report to Parliament on an IT system. I recall that Ministers over the years, going back over successive Governments, have fallen foul of that, so I shall learn the lessons of my predecessors, not just at the Ministry of Defence, but at other Departments. My hon. Friends are clear about the fact that we do not need these four new clauses and I shall ask them to resist the proposals if the hon. Gentleman does not see fit to withdraw them.

I want to clarify for the Committee a point that was raised in an earlier sitting. I can confirm that all changes to the pension scheme rules will be made by statutory instrument and will therefore be subject to the negative resolution procedure, which we discussed on the last full day on which we sat a couple of weeks ago. On that basis, I invite my hon. Friends to resist the new clauses if they are pressed to a Division.

Mr. Howarth: I am bound to say that the Minister is sensible not to commit himself to a date, much as I was intrigued to get one out of him. If I were in his shoes, given Governments' experience and their apparent inability to wrestle with the world of IT—this is a universal point—I would think it wise not to give a date. However, if the computer programme is not yet developed, and given that this is an important item, I would like to feel that the Minister has it in his mind's eye that he will be able to report back to Parliament at least by the end of the Easter recess to give us some indication of how progress is being made. These measures will affect virtually every Member of the House, because we all have constituents who will be affected.

On the example of the civil service, which is clearly the template that the Government are considering in respect of this new scheme, I suggest that the Minister might add to his little package of goodies, which he will bring before us on Thursday, an example of what went out to civil servants. Obviously, we do not want individual names. Given that the Government have adopted that template, it might assist the Committee if the Minister gave examples to show how the civil service made the change. The hon. Member for Falkirk, West thinks it is all frightfully simple, which may be so, but it would be helpful to have illustrations to see what we can make of them. The Minister is nodding, and I thank him on behalf of the Committee.

As to financial advice, the Government appear to be taking a futuristic approach, saying that they are ''going to'' look at how financial advice is dispensed. That matter has been discussed for some time, so either I am exceptionally thick or there has not been much progress in working out a clear line on dispensing financial advice and deciding who will give it. The Minister said that we must get the information to servicemen and that he is working on it. Attempts are being made to deal with those who are in far-flung corners of the globe and the possibility was

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raised of having helplines. It seems that everything is still up in the air and that there is no clear framework for the transition.

I am grateful to the Minister for undertaking to provide us with more information on the windfall issue and I am happy to let him have my documents on the subject if they would be of help.

The Minister rejects the new clauses on the basis that what they propose is already covered. I welcome the fact that the details of the transition will proceed under the statutory instrument procedure—an affirmative resolution that must be debated. However, there is no date for the statutory instrument to be presented to the House for our consideration and it is disappointing to hear that that matter is also still out in the long grass.

We welcome the longer decision-making period for those overseas. Presumably, it is envisaged that there will be a consultation period that will expire at a certain point. Meanwhile, people will be making and reporting their individual decisions at different times. I assume that at some point everyone who wishes to switch will do so on a specific date, not on different dates chosen by individuals. Has the Minister a clear idea of when in the two-year period the decision might be taken? It would be helpful to have that information, even if he cannot provide it now.

The default position—if someone does not decide to do otherwise, they stay in the existing system—seems to be a sensible way to proceed, and I am grateful to the Minister for that.

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The Committee will be relieved to know that time does not permit me to mention the longevity assumptions in new clause 12. As the Minister rightly said, they have been provided for this scheme, and that should also be done in future. That is one of the key points that we believe should be in the Bill. I do not deny that this is dry stuff, but, among the key components of how the Government make up their mind on a new scheme, longevity is an important factor to take into account. I therefore feel that this is a legitimate point to include, in respect of any future scheme that the Secretary of State might devise. As we know, clause 1 gives the Secretary of State unlimited powers to produce a new scheme to present to Parliament, providing an open-ended opportunity.

5 pm

We have had an extensive, albeit not entirely satisfactory, debate. The Minister has offered us some help, but a lot of issues are still outstanding and much uncertainty remains. It would be helpful to him if he were able regularly to report to Parliament on how progress is being made. We want to help; we do not want him to be caught in the mangle of another ministerial, departmental and IT disaster, because such a disaster would affect not only him, but those whom we in the Committee value above ourselves—the members of Her Majesty's armed forces. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Vernon Coaker.]

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Five o'clock till Thursday 26 February at five minutes to Nine o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)
Brazier, Mr.
Breed, Mr.
Caplin, Mr.
Coaker, Vernon
Cryer, John
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Joyce, Mr.
Lammy, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Rapson, Syd
Robertson, Hugh
Robertson, John
Swayne, Mr.
Turner, Dr. Desmond

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