Pensions Bill

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Clause 35

Registrable information

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Malcolm Wicks: The clause defines the term ''registrable information''. I touched on that in my opening remarks. The clause sets out what information must be provided to and stored by the regulator in the register set up under clause 34. Much of it is common sense: names and addresses, the status of the scheme and the categories of benefits provided by the scheme.

In the case of an occupational pension scheme, the name and address of any previous relevant employer must be provided, which will be helpful, and the number of members of the scheme must be provided. Much of the clause is common sense. I touched earlier on the fact that the regulator will not have every member's details, but we are taking steps to make sure that that is in order.

Mr. Osborne: This, obviously, is one of the crucial clauses about the register. The information that the Government are asking to be registered is much greater than that required by the pension scheme registry, and we welcome that. I do not mind saying that it has been good that the Government have consulted with the industry on the scheme return and that the industry—as I understand it, anyway—is broadly happy with what is being provided.

I just want to make sure that there are not any nasty surprises—but I know that the Minister is a good man and that he could not possibly be thinking of any. Subsection (2)(h) comes at the end of a long list of information that will be required, such as names, addresses, whether new members may be admitted, the categories of benefits and so on. At the very end of that list, we read:

    ''such other information as may be prescribed.''

That is carte blanche to ask for anything. Will the Minister explain why he needs to put it into the Bill, and who will do the prescribing? Will the regulator be able to determine what information it wants, or will it have to go to the Department for ministerial approval? Will Ministers have to get the approval of Parliament? In other words, will the issue go before Committees on delegated legislation, which provide such a rigorous check on the Executive? Subsection 2(h) caught my attention, and I wanted to flag it up.

2.30 pm

Malcolm Wicks: The best thing I can do is to reassure the hon. Gentleman that our intentions are sound and sensible. It is not always easy in primary legislation to specify every piece of information that might be required in the foreseeable future. Essentially, we want to enable the regulator to analyse the information and to inform its risk-based approach so that it can target resources effectively. We want to allow flexibility as circumstances change.

Column Number: 121

The type of information that the regulator needs may change. None of us can quite anticipate the nature and details of occupational pension schemes in 10 years' time. As I say, our intentions on the matter are honourable and sensible, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

Mr. Osborne: There are two questions that the Minister did not answer—or rather, one question that he did not answer and one point that I have just thought of. The question that he did not answer was: who will decide what extra information can be prescribed under the subsection that I referred to? Will it be the regulator, or will the regulator have to get Ministers' permission? In addition, will Ministers have to get Parliament's approval? In other words, will such measures be submitted as regulations to Committees on statutory instruments?

The point that I have just thought of is as follows. Given that I have congratulated the Government on their consultation exercise, will the Minister give an assurance to the Committee—and through the Committee, to the industry—that if there were to be any material changes to the requirements of the scheme return, the Government would consult with the industry?

Malcolm Wicks: I can give the assurance that we would want to consult with the industry and with other obvious interested parties. Will the details of the information be subject to parliamentary scrutiny? Yes, they will. They will be brought forward as regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36

The register: inspection, provision of information and reports etc

Mr. Osborne: I beg to move amendment No. 189, in

    clause 36, page 22, line 34, at end insert

    'save that the register will be open to members of the public during normal working hours, but with the home addresses of individual scheme trustees deleted.'.

The clause is about who may inspect the information collected on the register from all those schemes. As I understand it, subsection (2) basically leaves it entirely up to the Secretary of State to decide who can inspect the scheme and who will be able to check up on the information. First, I would appreciate it if the Minister clarified who will be able to look at it. Will it just be the regulator's staff? Will it be staff in the Department for Work and Pensions? Will it be staff in the Inland Revenue and other Departments? Will it be other organisations, such as credit rating agencies, because there are certain provisions whereby financial institutions can get hold of information that is not generally available to the public?

That issue leads me on to my amendment, and the question: why should the register not be public? Amendment No. 189 says that

    ''the register will be open to members of the public during normal working hours, but with the home addresses of individual scheme trustees deleted.''

Column Number: 122

That last detail is included to protect their privacy. Why should not we be able to see a register of pension schemes in this country? I am sure that the members of such schemes would be interested in some of the information provided on their behalf. That gives rise to the question whether members will be even aware of the returns that are being made to the register on their behalf by schemes. If the register were public, an interested member of the scheme could check up on it and see what state it was in.

We are coming on to discuss some of the whistleblowing provisions, but obviously a large part of the enforcement of pension law depends on whistleblowing. That has been the case with OPRA and it is envisaged that that situation will continue with the new regulator. Whistleblowing depends on someone knowing that there is something wrong. If they cannot view the register, they will not necessarily know that the information provided in it is incorrect. Therefore, I would have thought that an open scheme would help whistleblowing.

That is hardly an unprecedented thing to ask for. After this sitting finishes—if it finishes in time—we could all go to Companies House and look up the details of companies and directors. I believe that the home addresses of directors are also registered there. Certainly, significant details about companies are registered. I am unable to see why the register needs to be, in effect, private, rather than an open register that all members, and all members of the public, could check.

Scheme tracing was the original function of the current registry. I assume that that the scheme-tracing facility remains and will, perhaps, be improved. One of the complaints is that a scheme can be traced only by sending and receiving letters; there is no provision to do so over the telephone or internet. It would be interesting to find out whether there are any plans to improve that. However, that is secondary to my principal point. Why will the register not be open to members of the public and members of schemes?

Malcolm Wicks: The Opposition amendment would make the register of schemes available to members of the public, although the names of individual trustees and some of the details would be deleted. Hon. Members have heard me say that the register serves a number of purposes, one of which is to provide a pension-tracing service for members of the public who have lost touch with old pension schemes. That service is currently carried out by OPRA in its role as registrar. Last year it successfully provided contact in response to 25,000 requests.

The quinquennial review of OPRA suggested that tracing should be dealt with by central Government. That is what subsection (2) seeks to allow. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the tracing service is a part of the Government's core strategy to inform people about their pension provision and will in future be undertaken by the Department, rather than the new regulator. We will be able to improve the service offered. The points that the hon. Gentleman made about the use of IT, the net, and so on, are well taken. We will try to ensure that that happens.

Column Number: 123

The reason why we are resisting what seems, at first sight, to be a reasonable amendment—and why I am asking the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing it—is because we are sensitive to human rights issues. Disclosure to the public at large of information on the register could interfere with the right to respect for private and family life. There is also the further consideration that some of the information provided on the register could be regarded as commercial in confidence and could be of value to other companies, which is another reason why we are reluctant to accept the amendment. Restricted information may be disclosed by the regulator only to specific bodies for specific functions, which are detailed later in the Bill. For example, the Inland Revenue is the most obvious body in terms of its regulatory functions; the pensions ombudsman is another.

In asking the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing the amendment, I undertake to reflect on the strong points that he has made and consider whether there is any possibility of wider usage, notwithstanding the difficulties that I have mentioned.

 
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