Fire and Rescue Services Bill

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Richard Younger-Ross: I thank the Under-Secretary for his response on Thursday when he said that the problem of revenue funding for pensions will be resolved and that he is considering bringing in a scheme to deal with it fairly promptly. I hope that he will confirm that. If he can give us a timetable for such a review and say whether it would come into play for the next financial year, that would be beneficial for fire authorities.

A new scheme can occasionally create anomalies between those on the new scheme and those on the old. I can give a brief example. When the police pension scheme was changed in, I think, 1978, extra rights were given to the partners of officers who had retired and then died. If the officer had not remarried, the wife could get a pension. If the officer retired after 1978 and had remarried, the new wife would get a pension, but if the officer had retired before 1978, she would not. That has created much concern among some officers. I am anxious that we do not end up with the same anomaly for firefighters and that in 20 years' time firefighters are not coming to Members of Parliament, saying, ''It's a very small issue, but it's not fair; my wife now can't get a pension.''

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Phil Hope: Clause 33 re-enacts existing powers in section 26 of the Fire Services Act 1947 which allow the Secretary of State to bring pension schemes into operation for persons

    ''employed by a fire and rescue authority or by a Scottish fire authority''.

As I have said, we refer to schemes in the plural so that there is no doubt that, as well as bringing in the new pension arrangements that we believe necessary for the new fire and rescue service we can, for example, have a separate scheme for death and injury benefits. I have covered some of this territory in speaking to earlier amendments, so I will try to focus on the particular concerns that Members have raised.

On the time scale, we aim to publish our proposals for change in June 2004 with a view, following public consultation, to introducing new schemes on 1 April 2005. It is not possible for me to make a commitment on funding, but I pick up the point about the funded scheme. Subsection (2)(e), which we have just discussed, allows us to create a fund if we wish, and we are still consulting on that.

On the wider context, firefighters' pensions are paid from revenue, and fire and rescue authorities treat firefighters' pension contributions as revenue. The figures cited by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge are correct. Pensions constitute 30-35 per cent. of pay and 25 per cent. of revenue. Central Government revenue support grant reflects year-on-year increases in firefighters' pension costs, but that is, of course, based on average costs across the country rather than the spend of an authority. I made that point to the hon. Member for Teignbridge in the debate on the amendment.

Fire and rescue authorities and police authorities have similar problems with the lumpiness of payments for retiring firefighters. I cannot give the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge detailed figures of the police and military pension schemes, but the police certainly experience similar problems on occasion. We considered the issue in 2001, and various solutions were identified, particularly in the context of the modernisation programme. As a consequence, we are providing for an extension of the matters that may be included in any scheme to cover the provision of employer contributions and the payment of contributions into a fund. I confirm that that is not a decision but a proposal out for consultation. It is covered by subsection (2)(e), and it will mean that we can make different arrangements for financing and funding pensions if that appears, following consultation, to be the best practical solution to the problems that confront authorities in financing their pension schemes.

I do not have in front of me the details on the anomalies in the existing scheme. I say to the hon. Member for Teignbridge that, obviously, in consulting on the new scheme we will endeavour to consider all the anomalies that have been brought to our attention concerning previous schemes to consider whether they can be addressed. I cannot give him a yes or no answer on that point, because it is a matter that we will consider in June when the paper is out for

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consultation. If at that stage he feels that we have not covered his point well enough, despite his raising it here in Committee, he can make a contribution to the consultation process.

Mr. Drew: What the hon. Member for Teignbridge said is correct, and I totally agree with him. I have known a couple of occasions where the widow of a firefighter wished to get married again, in one case to another firefighter, and it was financially punitive to do so. We need to consider that. That disadvantage seemed to be unique to the fire service.

Phil Hope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I say, we will endeavour to see what the issues and anomalies are in the current scheme so that we do not create undesirable anomalies in future schemes.

The clause also deals with matters to do with invoking, varying or revoking a scheme, with issues of consultation and with issues of persons committing offences. We have covered those in debates on amendments. I hope that, given those remarks, hon. Members will agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 33, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34

Information in connection with pensions etc

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

10 am

Mr. Hammond: I make the following comments so that the Under-Secretary can add to the words ''paranoiac'' and ''preposterous'' the word ''pedantic''.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Or ''opportunistic''.

The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire (Mr. Nick Raynsford): It does not begin with ''p.''

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend rightly reminds me of the word ''opportunistic'', but, as the Minister of State observes, it does not begin with ''p''.

Because so many standards slip—there are slippery slopes all around us—it is important to draw attention to some matters, however trivial they may seem at the time. I am curious about the drafting of the clause, particularly subsection (2). My understanding is that subsections of a Bill should always be capable of being read alone and that they refer to other subsections in order to be properly understood. I have never seen a subsection of a Bill begin with the words, ''These are the questions''. What questions? The subsection does not say that the questions are those referred to in subsection (1)(a).

I must make a general point. The drafting of the Bill seems to break new ground in several ways. The strange drafting may be an attempt to bring drafting

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closer to natural language and make the Bill more understandable, but it has the effect of making the Bill more opaque in many cases. Does the Under-Secretary have anything to say about the revolutionary wording of subsection (2)?

Phil Hope: As a Minister in this Government, I am happy to be described as revolutionary. I shall take that back to my constituents and the Labour party members in Corby. I shall put it on the front page of my next newsletter.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that, however revolutionary I may feel at any moment, the drafting style to which he refers is essentially a matter for parliamentary counsel. No one has ever described them as revolutionary; perhaps they are, for the first time.

Before we get too far from our purpose this morning, I must point out that the clause is designed to ensure that firefighters receive accurate information on pensions. I am thankful that very few firefighters were affected by the pensions mis-selling of the 1990s. I am tempted to drift into that territory but shall not. Most firefighters remained in the scheme. The employee's contribution at 11 per cent. is among the highest for any public service scheme, but it reflects the benefits that are available.

To avoid the mis-selling of personal pensions to firefighters, clause 34 re-enacts provisions in the 1947 Act that were inserted by the Police and Firemen's Pensions Act 1997. Such provisions will enable fire and rescue authorities to provide information on pensions to firefighters who have opted or transferred out of the pension scheme.

On the specifics of one subsection referring to another, subsection (1)(a) refers to providing

    ''information in connection with the questions mentioned in subsection (2) to a prescribed person'',

and subsection (2) describes the questions. The hon. Gentleman may not have seen such parliamentary drafting before, but it clearly and effectively states what it does. I hope that he will support the clause.

Mr. Hammond: The drafting is a departure. One would like to think that there is a reason for the words at the beginning of subsection (2) not saying, ''The questions in connection with which a fire and rescue authority may provide information under subsection (1) are'', but the Under-Secretary clearly has not given the matter any thought. It is clear that there is no ministerial style input, but I find it somewhat surprising that parliamentary counsel are able to change the style of drafting. We were told earlier that the explanation for the change of wording between the Fire Services Act 2003 and the Bill was simply that different draftsmen had drafted them. That seems a bit of a hit-and-miss approach, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for at least having a go at explaining the problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 35

Preservation of existing pension scheme

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

Mr. Hammond: The clause allows the Secretary of State by order to continue to enforce the scheme established under section 26 of the 1947 Act. I imagine that a year or so ago most people assumed that new pension arrangements would have been brought in. The inclusion of the clause suggests to me that, if Ministers intend using it, there will inevitably be a gap between Royal Assent to the Bill and the 1947 Act ceasing to have effect so that new pension arrangements come into force.

The Government will have to decide quickly whether to use the power in the clause because there cannot be any discontinuity—an order will have to be made. It seems to me that an order cannot be made under clause 35 until after Royal Assent, yet the 1947 Act will cease to have effect upon Royal Assent. Will there not then be a gap—a lacuna—for the 1947 Act scheme? How will the Under-Secretary deal with it?

 
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