House of Commons Standing Committee B (pt 1)
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Session 2003 - 04
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Standing Committee Debates
Pensions Bill

Pensions Bill

Column Number: 003

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 9 March 2004

(Morning)

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Pensions Bill

9.30 am

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,

    That—

    (1) during proceedings on the Pensions Bill the Standing Committee shall, in addition to its first meeting on Tuesday 9th March at 9.30 a.m., meet—

    (a) on that day at 2.30 p.m., and

    (b) thereafter when the House is sitting on Tuesdays at 9.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. and on Thursdays at 9.30 a.m. and 2.00 p.m.

    (2) the proceedings to be taken at the sittings shall be as shown in the second column of the Table below and shall be taken in the order so shown;

    (3) the proceedings which under paragraph (2) are to be taken on any sitting shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the third column of the Table;

    (4) paragraph (2) shall not prevent proceedings being taken (in the order shown in the second column of the Table) at any earlier sitting than that provided for under paragraph (2) if previous proceedings have already been concluded.

    TABLE

    SittingProceedingsTime for conclusion of proceedings
    9th March (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 1 to 3, Schedule 1, Clauses 4 to 11, Schedule 2, Clauses 12 to 60, Schedule 3, Clauses 61 to 76, Schedule 4 and Clauses 77 to 80.
    9th March (2.30 p.m.) Clauses 1 to 3, Schedule 1, Clauses 4 to 11, Schedule 2, Clauses 12 to 60, Schedule 3, Clauses 61 to 76, Schedule 4 and Clauses 77 to 80 (so far as not previously concluded).
    11th March (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 1 to 3, Schedule 1, Clauses 4 to 11, Schedule 2, Clauses 12 to 60, Schedule 3, Clauses 61 to 76, Schedule 4 and Clauses 77 to 80 (so far as not previously concluded).
    11th March (2.00 p.m.) Clauses 1 to 3, Schedule 1, Clauses 4 to 11, Schedule 2, Clauses 12 to 60, Schedule 3, Clauses 61 to 76, Schedule 4 and Clauses 77 to 80 (so far as not previously concluded).
    16th March (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 1 to 3, Schedule 1, Clauses 4 to 11, Schedule 2, Clauses 12 to 60, Schedule 3, Clauses 61 to 76, Schedule 4 and Clauses 77 to 80 (so far as not previously concluded).
    16th March (2.30 p.m.) Clauses 1 to 3, Schedule 1, Clauses 4 to 11, Schedule 2, Clauses 12 to 60, Schedule 3, Clauses 61 to 76, Schedule 4 and Clauses 77 to 80 (so far as not previously concluded). 8.00 p.m.
    18th March (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 220 and 221, Schedule 10, Clauses 222 and 223, Clauses 191 to 193, Schedule 9 and Clauses 194 and 195.
    18th March (2.00 p.m.) Clauses 220 and 221, Schedule 10, Clauses 222 and 223, Clauses 191 to 193, Schedule 9 and Clauses 194 and 195 (so far as not previously concluded). 5.00 p.m.
    23rd March (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 81 to 83, Schedule 5, Clauses 84 to 123, Schedule 6, Clause 124, Schedule 7, Clauses 125 to 162, Schedule 8 and Clauses 163 to 177.
    23rd March (2.30 p.m.) Clauses 81 to 83, Schedule 5, Clauses 84 to 123, Schedule 6, Clause 124, Schedule 7, Clauses 125 to 162, Schedule 8 and Clauses 163 to 177 (so far as not previously concluded).
    25th March (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 81 to 83, Schedule 5, Clauses 84 to 123, Schedule 6, Clause 124, Schedule 7, Clauses 125 to 162, Schedule 8 and Clauses 163 to 177 (so far as not previously concluded).
    25th March (2.00 p.m.) Clauses 81 to 83, Schedule 5, Clauses 84 to 123, Schedule 6, Clause 124, Schedule 7, Clauses 125 to 162, Schedule 8 and Clauses 163 to 177 (so far as not previously concluded).
    30th March (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 81 to 83, Schedule 5, Clauses 84 to 123, Schedule 6, Clause 124, Schedule 7, Clauses 125 to 162, Schedule 8 and Clauses 163 to 177 (so far as not previously concluded).
    30th March (2.30 p.m.) Clauses 81 to 83, Schedule 5, Clauses 84 to 123, Schedule 6, Clause 124, Schedule 7, Clauses 125 to 162, Schedule 8 and Clauses 163 to 177 (so far as not previously concluded).
    1st April (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 81 to 83, Schedule 5, Clauses 84 to 123, Schedule 6, Clause 124, Schedule 7, Clauses 125 to 162, Schedule 8 and Clauses 163 to 177 (so far as not previously concluded). 11.25 a.m.
    1st April (2.00 p.m.) Clauses 178 to 190. 5.00 p.m.
    20th April (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 196 to 219.
    20th April (2.30 p.m.) Clauses 196 to 219 (so far as not previously concluded). 8.00 p.m.
    22nd April (9.30 a.m.) Clauses 224 to 242, Schedule 11, Clause 243, Schedule 12, Clauses 244 to 248. 11.25 a.m.
    22nd April (2.00 p.m.) New Clauses, New Schedules and remaining proceedings on the Bill. 5.00 p.m.

    I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths. We know from your reputation that you expedite proceedings in a brisk and businesslike way. Not having discussed a Bill in Committee since the Learning and Skills Bill, I know that there is nothing quite as exciting as the start of Committee proceedings, except the end of them. However, that will happen in some weeks' time and we shall be gathered together for much of March and April—apart from the Easter break—to consider what we regard as an important Bill. We are honoured that

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    not only you, Mr. Griffiths, but Mr. Cran, our other Chairman, will provide distinguished leadership.

    I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) for their co-operation in putting together the programme motion and the Whips for arranging business through the usual channels. We recommend that the Committee sits on Tuesdays at 9.30 am and 2.30 pm, and on Thursdays at 9.30 am and 2 pm, beginning today and ending on 22 April. We shall, of course, break for the Easter recess, although we shall not do so until Thursday 1 April. The fact that we are sitting on that day makes fools of us in parliamentary terms, but at least we shall be diligent ones before the Easter recess.

    On Tuesday 16 March and 20 April, our sittings will be extended until 8 pm if we need additional time to continue our debates. I welcome honourable colleagues, on both sides, to the Committee, several of whom spoke when we discussed the Bill on Second Reading. They will all have great interest in our proceedings in the coming weeks. I am sure that matters will be debated vigorously on all sides of the Committee.

    The Bill is long and complex, but I am sure that members of the Committee have the stamina and expertise to give it thorough scrutiny. We have had discussions to the effect that the proposed order of consideration may be amended. It has been suggested that six sittings on the pensions regulator may be one or so too many and we have agreed through the usual channels to consider that at the end of the week, depending on how we proceed today and on Thursday. I certainly look forward to the challenge of considering the Bill with colleagues.

    My Parliamentary Private Secretary says that it may or may not be the first time that the three principal spokesmen have names beginning with ''W''. He suggested that Waterson, Webb and Wicks sound like a firm of Croydon undertakers. I just hope that his jokes improve as we proceed.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): I echo many of the Minister's comments, not least his hope that the humorous side of the Committee will improve as time wears on. Let us all hope so for the sake of our sanity. I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths, as I do your esteemed colleague, Mr. Cran. We shall be in very capable hands. I welcome fellow members of the Committee—volunteers and pressed men, all—one or two of whom have not shown enormous enthusiasm for pensions issues in the past. However, I am sure that, by the end of our proceedings, they will be able to take the actuarial examinations with the best of them.

We have two slight problems with the sittings motion. First, by the end of our discussions in Committee, the shape of the Bill might be different from what it is now—a point to which I shall return. Secondly, as the Minister rightly said, there is a feeling that the Programming Sub-Committee formally, or informally, should have another look at things by the end of the week. I endorse wholeheartedly the view that six full sittings on the regulator is over-egging the

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pudding, but other parts of the Bill, as it stands, could benefit from a little more scrutiny. In our usual spirit of helpfulness and co-operation, the official Opposition are trying to ensure that every important part of the Bill has the chance of proper scrutiny.

I use the words ''as it stands'' carefully. We know that the Government will substantially amend the Bill in Committee, and I make no pretence that the Opposition will win any votes—unless we provoke the odd rebellion. By last Friday, 97 Government amendments had already been tabled, and I am happy to concede that they all seem minor. However, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State made it clear in the face of a lot of criticism from us and the industry that parts of the Bill had not been ready by Second Reading.

All Governments have their difficulties with parliamentary draftsmen, who tend to march to the beat of their own drum rather than that of their temporary political master, but there is a problem here. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State made it clear that the Government would be tabling amendments in several areas. He talked about tax simplification measures, which we think are important and useful; the vesting issue for short-term workers, which is also important; the ending of the requirement to offer additional voluntary contributions; and changes to section 67 of the Pensions Act 1995, for which we have long been pressing, to allow the rationalisation of accrued rights. Those are big issues because business organisations, such as the CBI and the Engineering Employers Federation, are already making noises about their concerns about proposals for automatic consultation of trade union representatives and others. They and we are, of course, in no position to comment until we see the amendments and new clauses.

Today, I want to extract from the Minister two eminently reasonable undertakings. One is that, to the extent that it is within his power and that of the usual channels, we see the amendments and new clauses sooner rather than later. That is not just for the Committee's convenience, although we do need at least two clear days to debate any amendments selected; it is sensible from the Government's and the Committee's point of view that we have the chance to ask all the outside bodies and organisations who take a close and proper interest in the Bill for their comments, concerns and support, if appropriate, in relation to the new rafts of amendments. I am sure that the Minister will be able to give that undertaking, subject to the caveat that I have inserted.

Secondly, I want the Minister's undertaking that there will be no other significant topics, other than those that I have reviewed in the Secretary of State's speech, which the Minister will flag up or the Government are likely to try to include in the Bill at Committee stage. Such an undertaking would help the Committee as well as you, Mr. Griffiths, and your co-Chairman.

We quite understand that the Government are not following strictly the printed order of the Bill. The large part of the Bill that will take the most time, as well as most of the attention and interest of outside

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bodies, is the establishment of the pension protection fund. That takes up a substantial chunk of the Bill, and it is being taken out of order and considered later, presumably because several amendments, technical or otherwise, will need to be tabled to it. We make a specific plea in relation to that part, precisely because it is at the heart of the Bill, for as early an indication as possible of amendments and new clauses.

I wish to raise two final subsidiary points. During the Second Reading debate, there was an invitation to a possible meeting from the Secretary of State. It may have been summarily withdrawn at one point, but I am sure only in an uncharacteristic fit of pique. The Minister, not being prone to such behaviour, will want to reinstate an invitation along those lines. Regardless of whether it is formal or informal, we are happy to hold a discussion about the shape of the Bill and how we can help the Committee to be sensible and constructive so that we do not leave great chunks of the legislation—particularly the new bits of it—without scrutiny. Within the last 24 hours we have seen that the second Chamber takes its proper role as a revising Chamber very seriously; it is likely to take it even more seriously in the case of Bills that do not receive proper scrutiny due to Government delay in tabling amendments.

My other point is a traditional one that is made by every Opposition spokesman at the beginning of every stage of every Bill, but it applies in spades in the case of this Bill; it is to plead to be shown draft regulations. The Bill appears at first glance—and after subsequent glances—to be large and detailed. However, a lot of detail that is important to the industry and to the organisations that I have mentioned is not in the Bill; it is being left for regulations. I do not seek to make a legalistic point about that. We will sometimes try to make additions to the Bill, as Oppositions always do, rather than leave things to regulations. However, it would be immensely helpful if we could see the draft regulations. The Committee would find things almost impenetrable if we could not see them. That could be a rough draft, but it would assist greatly if we were shown a version of a draft, especially if it were produced in good time for the discussion of the part of the Bill that it addresses.

The Committee's proceedings would get off to a very constructive start if the Minister were forthcoming with regard to the undertakings that I am seeking.

 
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Prepared 9 March 2004