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Child Support Agency

2. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the Child Support Agency's policy towards those deemed to be the parent without care who claim they are not actually the parent. [40158]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Where the parentage of a child is disputed, the agency can, in appropriate cases, arrange DNA tests. In five out of six cases, these prove that the alleged non-resident parent is the father of the child. There are categories of case, for example where the father is named on the birth certificate, where the agency can presume parentage without a test, but that can be disputed in the courts. If the court finds, or the DNA test shows, that a man is not the father of the child, the agency refunds the cost of the DNA test, refunds any maintenance paid and ceases action.

Harry Cohen: It was recently revealed that more than 3,000 men or one in six of those who took the DNA test were not the father of the child. Will my hon. Friend give an absolute assurance that all those men will be fully refunded, any arrears written off and the cost of the test reimbursed? If it is deemed that a woman acted maliciously in naming a man who proved not to be the father, should not the cost of the DNA test be transferred to her?
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Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is correct to say that since the agency began to operate there have been 3,000 such cases. However, the number of tests commissioned each year is falling. In the first full year of the agency's operation there were more than 4,000 tests, but in the last complete year of operation there were fewer than 2,000. The percentage proving negative has been steady throughout, with just 300 such cases last year. I assure my hon. Friend that if a man is proved not to be the father, the cost of the DNA test is reimbursed as are any maintenance payments made. If a malicious claim is made by a mother, there are actions that the agency may take against her.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Does the Minister consider that there is sufficient incentive for the partner with care to identify the other parent?

Mr. Plaskitt: In most cases in which that becomes a matter of dispute, it is resolved long before maintenance comes into place. Disputes about parentage occur in various circumstances. Sometimes the dispute emerges early, with the claim being made by either party, but sometimes a dispute only arises once a man has been assessed as liable for maintenance. Then, and only then, does he dispute parentage, usually for vexatious reasons. That results in an investigation to establish whether he is in fact the father.

Public Sector Pensions

3. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): What role his Department has played in negotiations on the reform of public sector pensions. [40159]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): We have welcomed the savings to the Exchequer that will result from the negotiations. In April 2005, the Prime Minister asked the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to lead discussions with trade unions on the public sector schemes. My right hon. Friend took that responsibility with him to the Department of Trade and Industry. Ministers in this Department have not taken part in negotiations since then.

Mr. Wilson: I thank the Minister for his answer, but what action will he take to address the £800 billion public sector pension liability, or does he simply expect the private sector to pick up the tab?

Mr. Timms: Let me remind the hon. Gentleman what his party said during the election—[Hon. Members: "Answer the question".] I can understand that he may not like to be reminded—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is no need to remind the hon. Gentleman; the Minister should just give the answer.

Mr. Timms: The Conservatives told us that they had no plans to alter civil service pensions—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister is out of order and he will resume his seat.
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Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Rather surprisingly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the Treasury Committee, on 8 December 2005, that in regard to last October's public sector pension agreement

In the interests of clarity, can the Minister confirm that as a result of those negotiations nobody who is at present a teacher, a worker in the national health service or a worker in the civil service will have to retire over the age of 60? Yes or no?

Mr. Timms: That would depend on what happens in the meantime: for example, if somebody is under the agreement that has been reached—there are of course further discussions to be had—and leaves one of the occupations that the hon. Gentleman described and later rejoins the pension scheme, they would re-enter on the basis of the new agreement, so the answer to his question is no.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): The Minister will be aware of the many attacks on pensions by companies throughout the country which are breaking their promises on almost a daily basis. Will he assure me that the promises we make to public sector workers will be kept and that he will ensure that they are kept?

Mr. Timms: I very much agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that the public sector should behave responsibly as an employer, as all employers should, and that major changes to pension schemes should be negotiated and properly consulted on. That will continue to be our practice.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Does the Minister have any plans to revisit—[Hon. Members: "Brutus!"] Does the Minister have any plans to revisit the sum of £800 billion in the light of revelations this   morning that private sector auditors have underestimated private sector liabilities by a factor of 200 per cent., failing to take account of growing longevity?

Mr. Timms: I did not catch all of that, but I will not ask the hon. Gentleman to write to me—[Laughter.] What I can say is that the approach we have taken to reforming public sector pensions is not unusual; changes will apply to new members and not existing ones, and the agreement that has been made will deliver substantial expenditure savings, precisely as we always intended that it would.

Pensions Commission

4. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What assessment he has made of the Pensions Commission's second report. [40160]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr.   John Hutton): The Government welcome the broad framework of the Pensions Commission proposals and options. I am particularly pleased that the report has recognised and endorsed the Government's approach to tackling the legacy of pensioner poverty that we inherited in 1997, through
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measures such as the pension credit. The Government will work towards the publication of a White Paper in the spring that will set out our full response.

James Duddridge: The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that the Turner report recommendations may not be affordable. Is that still the case given the £10 billion that will be raised by equalising women's state pension age?

Mr. Hutton: We have always made it clear that the proposals have to be affordable. We will take no risks with public expenditure, or with the fiscal rules, and when we produce our White Paper we shall set out the proposals in detail, of course with the funding that is necessary to support them.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that 70 per cent. of women do not receive the basic state pension, and that an even greater percentage are outside any private arrangement? Does he agree that to establish an effective pension system two characteristics must inform it? First, everyone must be included, carers as well as people earning an income, and secondly, the sums given must be adequate.

Mr. Hutton: Yes. I agree absolutely with what my hon. Friend has said. It is generally recognised that women fare particularly badly under the current basic state pension rules. In making my statement to the House in November, when Lord Turner published his proposals, I tried to emphasise the importance that we attach to ensuring that any long-term reform proposals are fair to women and carers, and I can give my hon. Friend that absolute assurance once again today.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that a study of an otherwise excellent report shows that it has only one deficiency: it does not seem to contain recommendations on incentives for existing employers to continue with final salary schemes? Does he not agree that it would be in the national interest to provide such incentives? Does he have any ideas on that subject?

Mr. Hutton: Clearly, we need to consider a range of issues in relation to the proposals that we put forward in the spring, and I am sure that that will be one of them. Of equal significance, however, to whether there are final salary schemes, career-average schemes or defined contribution schemes is the fundamental problem that not enough people are saving to provide an adequate retirement income for themselves. Lord Turner has done us all a great service in the House by drawing attention to that weakness in the current arrangements. He has made a series of specific proposals for a new national pension saving scheme to which we will give careful consideration. Of course, one of those issues should be the tax incentive arrangements to encourage savings—but that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
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Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State has mentioned a national pension savings scheme whereby workers who are not enrolled in a company pension scheme would be automatically enrolled in such a system. Does he agree that, at a stroke, that would help the low-paid workers who have been largely absent from the savings industry? Given that high costs have bedevilled the savings industry, does he not think that that pension scheme would be a catalyst to driving down provider charges?

Mr. Hutton: I can agree with my right hon. Friend. That is precisely what drove Lord Turner to make the recommendations that he made. The key to Lord Turner's proposals is auto-enrolment, so that everyone has the opportunity to participate in one of the low-cost pension savings schemes. That has obvious attractions, but we must look very carefully at the detail of Lord Turner's recommendations before we make our own detailed proposals in the spring.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I should like to associate the Liberal Democrat party with the comments that the Secretary of State made earlier about former hon. Members who are respected and remembered on both sides of the House.

On pensions reform, has the Secretary of State made any progress in discussing the issue with the Chancellor of the Exchequer over Christmas? In addition, has the Chancellor of the Exchequer completed the Treasury inquiry into the leaking of his letter prior to the Turner report?

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The Ides of March.

Mr. Hutton: Indeed. I was not at all sure whether anyone would be sitting on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench to ask what we could call a series of questions today.

Leak inquiries are nothing whatever to do with the Department for Work and Pensions, and they are nothing to do with my responsibilities to the House as Secretary of State. On the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), of course I continue to have friendly discussions with the Chancellor about the pensions reform proposals, and I am very confident that we will introduce a series of radical and far-reaching reforms for the pension system in this country that, I hope, will command cross-party consensus.

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