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The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): We welcome moves to reduce scheme deficits, and the new scheme funding requirements reflect our aim that deficits should be reduced. The pensions regulator will work with trustees and employers on realistic plans for eliminating pension fund deficits.
Jessica Morden: As the Minister will know, some major companies have recently made large contributions to their pension funds to reduce their deficits, including HSBC, which contributed £1 billion. What does he intend to do to encourage other companies to follow that example?
I welcome the large contributions made by a number of companies recently. My hon. Friend mentions one such company. Others include HBOS, which committed £1.8 billion over five years, Philips, which committed £400 million, and ITV, which committed £325 million. There are a number of other examples as well. The risk-based form of the levy for the pension protection fund means that firms can reduce the amount they pay in levy by reducing their deficits. Her
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example shows that the new incentives are having the desired effect. Other firms are not in the position to reduce their deficits so quickly. The regulator has acknowledged that some will need significantly longer than the proposed 10-year benchmark. However, I welcome the progress that is being made.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Does the Minister recognise that the schemes that the Government have introduced collectively mean that the best way for most companies to reduce their pension exposure is to close the scheme to new entrants? The second best way is to close the scheme altogether.
Mr. Timms: No, I do not agree. We are seeing pressures on defined benefit schemes in the UK, as elsewhere, arising mainly from rising life expectancy and volatility in the stock market, but also from increased transparency in accounting standards. The regulator has made it clear that there will not be a requirement to close deficits within 10 years, but there will be a case-by-case consideration of each scheme.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Obviously there is concern about overseas companies that buy British companies and, of course, operate overseas. What can we do about those pension funds? What regulations are in place to ensure that those funds are not taken away from British pensioners?
Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend knows that we changed the arrangements and the regulatory framework for pension schemes in the Pensions Act 2004, and put in place a much more robust set of protections. Experience will show that they will be effective and do the job that is needed.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Has the Minister taken note of the CBI's concerns that one in five UK companies could run out of cash and collapse because of the proposed new funding requirements? We urge him to assess the likely job losses that that would create. Will he impress on the pensions regulator the need for common sense and flexibility in the time scale for funding requirements?
Mr. Timms: Yes, I have seen those concerns. Under the new arrangements, firms and trustees will be required to have a plan for closing the deficit on each scheme. The regulator is proposing to look more closely if those plans are to take more than 10 years. The CBI's concern is that that 10-year threshold could become a rigid requirement. I agree that that must not be allowed to happen. The regulator agrees with that as well.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge):
The new deal is one of the most successful policies introduced by this Labour Government. It has helped us eradicate long-term youth unemployment and it has helped us cut long-term unemployment among all people of working age by over
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90 per cent. The new deal has already helped more than 1.5 million people into work, including many in my hon. Friend's constituency.
Mr. Austin: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Unemployment in Dudley, North is down 38 per cent., and 2,300 people in my constituency have found work as a result of the new deal. That has had a big impact. What plans does she have to strengthen the new deal and ensure that we help those long-term unemployed who are still without the skills that they need to find work? Can she set out her assessment of plans to abolish the new deal, as advocated by some hon. Members?
Margaret Hodge: Unlike any other political party represented in this House, this Government will maintain and extend the new deal to ensure that we can build on our very effective policies. Before the new deal was introduced, the previous Government threw people on to the scrap heap of the dole. We have lifted people out of poverty and into employment very successfully.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): What has been the total cost of the new deal since it was set up? How many of those people who the Minister says have found jobs did so as a result of the new deal and not as a result of company vacancies?
Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman would benefit from going to his own Jobcentre Plus and discussing with people therehis constituentshow they have been helped and supported by the new deal. If we scrapped the new deal it would cost the public purse much, much more in benefits; it would cost the economy much, much more in lost output and lost productivity; and it would cost individuals much, much more in lost opportunity and lost hope.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The new deal has been very popular in my constituency. [Interruption.] Almost 3,000 youngsters have benefited from this great scheme, and making such a success of it is testimony to the Labour Government's efforts. I am concerned about unemployment among graduates. The Minister mentioned extending the scheme. Has she considered extending it to graduates, who would benefit from it rather than having to stack shelves in supermarkets?
Margaret Hodge: The groans from Conservative Members make me wonder how on earth they believe that they will command support among the whole population for their bigoted prejudice against a scheme that has simply helped more people into work.
To answer my hon. Friend's question, graduates, as much as any other group of people, are eligible for the new deal. Many of the new jobs that are becoming available as a result of our very effective stewardship of the economy will provide opportunities for people to
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move from graduation into employment. We will ensure that the new deal is there to support them for as long as we are in government.
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Under the new deal for disabled people, where charitable and voluntary bodies have been allowed to deliver job-placement services, more people have been placed into more jobs more quickly. However, despite the Government's warm words about charitable and voluntary bodies, the National Audit Office said last June:
Margaret Hodge: I certainly will not scrap the new deal. This Johnny-come-lately support for the voluntary sector is a bit odd. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman ought to check, without showing me little bits of paper, how much of our expenditure on the new deal goes to the voluntary and community sector. We on the Labour Benches give considerable support to ensuring that the best agency and the best peoplewhether under the new deals for disabled people, for young people, for 25-plus or for lone parents, and whether from the charitable sector, the private sector or, indeed, the statutory sectorare there to support individuals.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The southern part of my constituency is a pathways to work pilot. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the signs are good that the new deal approach will even benefit people on incapacity benefit who want to get back to work?
Margaret Hodge: I thank my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to reiterate that the pathways to work pilot makes considerable use of the voluntary and private sector in providing services for individuals[Interruption.] No, practically all of it goes to the private and voluntary sector. I suggest that a teach-in would be helpful for the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley). The pathways to work pilots are the most successful intervention attempted by any Government in the developed world in providing hope and opportunity for people with long-term illness and disabilities to return to work. There has been an 8 per cent. increase in the number of people returning to work on that pilot.
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