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Pension Schemes (Regulation)

8. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What assessment he has made of the likely effects on occupational pensions of planned changes to the regulation of pension schemes. [48326]
 
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The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): The reforms have been designed to promote good administration of occupational pensions and to protect members' benefits. The pensions regulator has made a good start with a flexible, proactive and risk-based approach to regulation.

Mr. Carmichael: I thank the Minister for his answer, but he will know of the growing concern that changes to the regulatory environment have driven the UK's defined benefit pension schemes to shift into bonds, especially long-dated index-linked bonds, driving their yields down to incredibly low levels. He will also know that that has caused companies to invest less in their own businesses. Does he share my concern that those changes will only increase pension deficits and damage the economy as a whole? Does he believe that there are parallels to be drawn with the catastrophic debt deflation that afflicted Japan in the 1990s?

Mr. Timms: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis. The type of investments held by schemes does not have any bearing on the calculation of the Pension Protection Fund levy next year. Long-dated bonds are sought after, but that is because schemes want to match their assets with their liabilities, which is a rather different motivation from the one that he proposed.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with the regulator about Federal-Mogul—as he knows, it is a major problem, to say the least—given that a number of people in Coventry could be affected by the outcome?

Mr. Timms: I am aware of that case and, indeed, the very close interest that my hon. Friend takes in it. I pay tribute to him for all the work that he has done. I am keeping an eye on developments, but he will accept that the establishment of the Pension Protection Fund is a reassuring development for members of that scheme.

Financial Assistance Scheme

9. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What recent assessment his Department has made of the funding level of the financial assistance scheme. [48327]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): We have provided £400 million of taxpayer funds over 20 years for the scheme. The likely calls on that funding will be clearer when we have assessed the eligibility of each scheme and its members.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his response. My understanding is that 167 schemes have been accepted as qualifying for the payment scheme. However, in those 167 companies only 15 people are receiving any money. Does he agree that that is a disgrace, and what do he and the Department intend to do to ensure that more people receive payment?

Mr. Timms: I very much welcome my hon. Friend's interest in that important subject. He is quite right—so far, 159 schemes have qualified for the financial assistance scheme, but only two have provided data for calculating interim payments, which is why a hold-up
 
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has occurred. Schemes should do much better than that, so he will agree that it is vital that other schemes provide that data without delay.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Through the Minister, may I thank the Secretary of State for meeting a delegation of former Dexion workers from my constituency, 700 of whom have had their pensions stolen? Is there any sign of when they are likely to receive compensation through the financial assistance scheme?

Mr. Timms: I am taking a close interest in that scheme. Indeed, I spoke to the trustees last week, encouraging them to provide the data that is needed quickly. In the first instance, quite a small number of people are entitled to interim payments, but I hope that there will not be too long a delay for everyone else.

Child Support Agency

10. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): If he will make a statement on the recent performance of the Child Support Agency. [48328]

12. Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): If he will make a statement on the performance of the Child Support Agency. [48330]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in his reply to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), we have acknowledged that the performance of the agency is not good enough. We are looking at ways to improve its performance, so that the right maintenance payments are paid at the right time in a lot more cases. The Secretary of State will make an announcement shortly on how we intend to accomplish this.

James Duddridge: What would the Minister say to people such as my constituent, Mr. Graham Topping, who is paying £415 under the old assessment scheme and under the new assessment scheme will pay £190? Mr. Topping believes that the Department's policy of not transferring from old to new may cost him his home, and he says it is too little, too late.

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman's constituent can ask for an assessment review, and it might be advisable for him to do that. I reiterate the comments made by my right hon. Friend that we appreciate that the agency's performance has not been good enough. He will shortly make a statement to the House.

Mr. Newmark: The Prime Minister has commented on the problems that have been encountered because the CSA is the investigating agency, then it is the adjudicating agency, and finally it is the enforcement agency. Will the Minister renew the Government's commitment to a full separation of powers?

Mrs. McGuire: The Secretary of State will shortly make a statement to the House about the way forward for the Child Support Agency.
 
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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I appreciate that the Government are trying to do something about the problem, but will my hon. Friend look into the length of time it takes for the CSA's chief executive to respond to hon. Members when we raise issues of concern? In many cases what is required is a clear and transparent answer giving information to our constituents, so that they do not have to follow up the inquiry with telephone calls. Such courtesy and efficiency goes to the heart of the way in which we can improve the system.

Mrs. McGuire: I apologise to my hon. Friend if he has not received the sort of response that he would expect from the chief executive of a DWP agency. I will look into the matters that he raised.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Is the Minister aware that one of the complaints of those who are involved with the Child Support Agency is that while they are trying to deal with people who are ducking and diving, when they report cases to the court for prosecution the court does not take those cases seriously and many are not proceeded with? When Ministers are considering the new CSA, will they talk to those in charge of the court system to see if anything can be done about that?

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman, in some respects, highlights an issue that we all recognise as vital—the enforcement of payments. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State delivers his statement to the House shortly, I am sure that he will cover some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised about the court system and its interaction with the CSA.

Pensions Commission Report

13. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent representations he has received regarding the findings and recommendations of the Pensions Commission report. [48331]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): We have received numerous representations and are looking forward to many more in the course of the national pensions debate. We aim to respond to the commission with a White Paper in the spring.

Mr. Harper: The equalisation of the state pension age for women to 65 will save the taxpayer about £10 billion. Can the Minister give an undertaking that that saving will be available to help pay the cost of Lord Turner's recommendations?

Mr. Timms: That saving is being treated in precisely the same way as it was treated when the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported before 1997 made that change. The plans for future spending are built into the projections now, precisely as they were when the right hon. Member for St. Albans, now the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), was Secretary of State.
 
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