Pensions Bill

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Mr. Webb: I am slightly disappointed that my words stay for so short a time in the Minister's mind that he has to answer them the second he hears them. I shall persevere anyway.

The schemes must provide the regulator with information. Will the Minister say a bit more about where the Bill states that the regulator can require the scheme to keep better records? As he said, the regulator will not know the nitty-gritty about individual scheme members. However, those members need to know that there is good record keeping. Is that power explicit, clear and strong enough? I want to be clear about that. Perhaps the power is included in the Bill, but we have not got to it yet.

We welcome the collection of additional information. The only real concern, however, is how that feeds through to the individual scheme member. It was quite shocking to hear some of the information the Minister provided about schemes not knowing for how long people had been members. That is basic information. It is rather surprising that the previous regulator did not have that power. Perhaps the

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Minister could assure us that the Bill explicitly says that the new regulator will actively pursue that kind of thing.

Mr. Osborne: I, too, have a few questions that the Minister could answer in a bunch with those asked by the hon. Member for Northavon.

We welcome this improvement of the pension scheme registry, which was designed to help people trace pension schemes and help collect the levy. It was not supposed to support the supervision or regulatory functions that we all agree are necessary. I refer hon. Members to the Public Accounts Committee's report on the matter. In many ways, the former system restricted OPRA's ability to cross-reference schemes and consider them if a trustee in one was found to be doing something improper. It could not cross-reference and see what other schemes that same trustee was involved in. The PAC goes so far as to say that in practice the pension scheme registry gave little assistance to OPRA.

We welcome the change. I suppose that both the Conservatives, who introduced the 1995 Act, and the Government, who have been sitting on that Act for six years, have to take some responsibility for not improving things a bit earlier. That was a finding of the all-party PAC. It felt that the gap in knowledge should have been addressed earlier, but we are where we are.

2.15 pm

I have some specific questions. Under subsection (1), the regulator must compile and maintain a register. I suppose that the straightforward question is: where will the register be compiled? At the moment, the registry is in Newcastle, which is a fine place for it. We should put on record the fact that the Davis report—the quinquennial report commissioned by the Government—said that the pensions scheme registry was

    ''well run and efficient, with a motivated team of staff providing excellent customer service.''{**W4**}

That is very good news, and the registry should be given proper credit.

Davis goes on to say:

    ''However, their location in Newcastle, when the rest of the organisation is based in Brighton, means that they sometimes feel isolated from their colleagues and are seen as an 'outpost of empire'.''{**W4**}

That is a problem that Davis identified. I would be interested to know whether the Minister agrees with the quinquennial review. Are there any plans to move one operation from Brighton to Newcastle, or to move the operation in Newcastle down to Brighton? There are lots of marginal seats in Brighton, so perhaps the organisation will be staying there.

It would be interesting to know whether there will be any relocation, and if so, what will be done to help the staff relocate. If the register is to be much more actively used by the regulator, it might be difficult having registry staff at different ends of the country, even with today's modern technology. That point occurred not to me, but to the Government's own

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quinquennial review of OPRA, so it might be worth the Minister's while to clarify the issue.

May I also ask about the cost of compiling and maintaining the register? When I looked through the regulatory impact assessment, there was very little detail. In fact, I could hardly find any reference to the register at all, although there is, of course, reference to the regulator. The regulatory impact assessment tells us that there will be a 25 per cent. increase in the cost of running the regulator. That means that the cost will go up by £6 million to £23 million. According to the assessment, that increase is due to increased staff numbers and accommodation costs, codes of practice, printing and IT.

There will also be one-off start-up costs of about £6 million, and a further £20 million will be needed for IT development. Those are considerable sums. I am assuming, and am asking the Minister to confirm, that the costs of compiling the register come within those costs. Perhaps he could give us an idea of what proportion of the extra costs the setting up and maintaining of the register account for. We would all be interested to know that.

It is worth asking the Minister whether he is satisfied with the IT that will be used. I am asking him that because one of my other functions is shadowing one of his Treasury Minister colleagues, and we regularly ask Treasury Ministers about their IT projects, because they are all hopeless—not the Ministers, I hasten to add, but the IT projects that the Inland Revenue commissions. The Department for Work and Pensions will, of course, be familiar with projects such as the NIRS2 project. I would be interested to know whether the Minister is satisfied that the IT scheme, which is not nearly as large as NIRS2, but is nevertheless a fairly extensive project, will be delivered on time and on budget. Does he, unlike his colleague the Paymaster General, regularly meet the people who provide IT for his Department?

Finally, subsection (4) requires the regulator to maintain a list of schemes that have ceased to be registrable or have been wound up. Will the Minister confirm that they will be recorded in perpetuity? A list of schemes that had been wound up would make great reading in a couple of hundred years' time. Subsection (6) says that

    ''the register may consist of more than one part.''{**W4**}

What does that mean?

Malcolm Wicks: It would help me if I dealt with the questions in reverse order. I hope that the Committee will not be too confused by that approach. I am still thinking through the last question. I may not have fully grasped it, although if I can grasp the answer to it, that will be good enough. Yes, records will be kept in perpetuity. Whether I can talk with any weight about the intergalactic authority of the fifth millennium, I am not certain, but I am sure that in some way they will imbibe Hansard, and these proceedings, and understand the meaning of my pledge. I must add that that was not a pledge to expand the European Union—I accept that such matters are controversial to some people.

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At present, there are six members of staff at the registry in Newcastle, but in future the registry will be based in Brighton, despite the fact that, notwithstanding what the hon. Gentleman said, Newcastle thinks of itself as the centre of the empire. However, we will not dwell on that. It is a minor slur—if that is not an unparliamentary term—to suggest that we are basing the registry in Brighton because of the marginal seats. That is not the reason. [Interruption.] We thought about Tatton, but because electoral considerations are not a criterion, we are not basing it there.

The Committee knows about the increasing costs of the regulator vis-à-vis OPRA. That is the best cost figure we have. When I recently visited OPRA—not that it can take parliamentary judgments about the Bill for granted—it was beginning seriously to think through the IT implications of the move. I understand the hon. Gentleman's caution about IT. Some projects are not as good as others, although that is not always true of my Department. We have many success stories.

To make sure that I get things absolutely correct, I shall write to the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) about the Financial Services Authority. My understanding is that, as it is a public body, the FSA's pension scheme would not come under the ambit of the regulator. I shall clarify that, however, although I think that the answer will be no. We certainly want the regulator to work closely with the FSA on a range of issues in the future. Although it would be mildly amusing for it to be regulating the FSA's pension scheme, that will not be the case. If I have got that wrong, I shall clarify matters later.

Mr. Webb: I am grateful to the Minister. The FSA was a specific example, but there is a wider issue about the security of pension rights of public sector workers in general. I am sure that there is a cross-reference—although I cannot find one—about the register relating to schemes outside the public sector. Surely members of public sector schemes might want to track down what happened to their pensions and want reassurance about whether their schemes are adequately funded. Such considerations stray into the public sector, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can enlighten us about them.

Malcolm Wicks: May I do that in writing? I take the point that people might be members of different public sector schemes and that tracing is of some importance. As I said in my opening remarks, the regulator will identify bad records via whistleblowing reports and scheme returns. It can then issue improvement notices.

I will be able to say more about where information issues are in the Bill, and how we will gather information, soon, when we get to clause 35. If the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) or any Committee member would like to visit the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority, that could be arranged. I hope that I have covered most of the questions to the satisfaction of Committee members, and I ask them to support the clause.

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Question put and agreed to.

Clause 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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