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Mr. Hutton: I thank my right hon. Friend for those remarks. It is probably best for others to make such
claimsbut I agree with him! I am happy to have further discussions with him on the APW issue, and we will go every inch of the way to try to find a sensible solution.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If I have understood the Secretary of State correctly, in 2044 the retirement age will increase to 68. Does he envisage that that age will have to increase? Will someone starting work today be guaranteed to retire at 68, or will the age have to be increased in the future?
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Given that many more people now have a fragmented employment history, moving from one employer to another frequently or doing two or three jobs at once, will the new system serve them well?
Mr. Hutton: That is a very important point. Many of the workers who are not currently saving for their own retirement are in that position. As we design the personal account scheme, one of its principal objectives will be to have sufficient flexibility and portability, so that it can be easily moved from one employer to another. I hope that that will be one of the hallmarks of the new scheme and I am happy to continue discussing that with my hon. Friend if she would find that useful.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent package. Perhaps the best aspect of it is that it will erode the injustice towards women that has been endemic in the pensions structure. He has given guarantees about the state system, but women are still disadvantaged in occupational pensions. Will he think seriously about having a gender impact assessment of the White Paper to identify those systemic problems and to get across to women that planning for their pensions is very much in their interest?
Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the White Paper and the manner in which he secured it. On behalf of my constituents who are members of the Richards pension fundnow part of the financial assistance schemeI thank him for the extension of the scheme, which will be important to many of them. He will be aware that the scheme has serious problems of cost, complexity and delay, so what proposals does he have to improve the administration of the scheme?
Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words, which are much appreciated. I said earlier that we are not satisfied with the current standard and
level of performance. We are considering several options for improving that, but I do not really want to announce the details today. It is only fair and right to point out that some of the difficulties that we have encountered arise from the complexity of the situation, and we are heavily dependent on receiving information from scheme trustees on time. If that does not happen, it is difficult to act as quickly as we would like. We are looking at the administration of the scheme and I want to speed it up, because it is important for those who can benefit from it to get the financial support as quickly as possible. That might go some way to addressing the uncertainty and fear that they have about the future.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I warmly welcome the totality of the package that my right hon. Friend has announced, but will he give some consideration to the continued existence of the higher-rate tax relief? By and large, it tends to go to people who already save for their pensions anyway. Instead, could he not transfer some of that money to provide even more assistance and encouragement for people to adopt the new personal accounts? The people who will opt out are probably those at the bottom end of the earnings scale, and we could give them greater assistance if the higher-rate tax relief were abolished.
Mr. Hutton: We will certainly look at what my hon. Friend suggests, and I welcome his support for the White Paper. However, these are matters for which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has responsibility, and it is probably safer and better for me to stick to my own responsibilities.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): My question is along similar lines to the one asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). The higher-rate relief costs the Treasury £18 billion a year in forgone tax revenues. Overwhelmingly, it is claimed by the richest in our society yet evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions suggests that tax relief on pension savings has almost no effect in encouraging people to save for their pensions. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend explain in more detail the matter raised by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill): how will the 1 per cent. tax relief in the national pensions savings scheme work, and what will it do?
Mr. Hutton: The 1 per cent. tax relief in the NPSS will be paid in the normal way that tax relief is paid into existing occupational schemes. My hon. Friend raises a wider point that several other hon. Members have also referred to and, although I do not want to repeat a standard answer, all matters to do with tax relief are for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I know that he will be considering those matters.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the announcements made by my right hon. Friend, especially those having to do withthe financial assistance scheme. However, what will be the position of self-employed people in respect of the
NPSS? How will it work for them, and how many self-employed people are expected to enrol in the scheme?
Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Again, it is very difficult to offer a precise estimate, but several hundred thousand self-employed people might choose to enrol in the NPSS. Obviously, they cannot be enrolled automatically as, by definition, there would be no employer contribution on their behalf. The estimate that I have given is not an exact science, but we are clear that self-employed people should have the right to invest pension savings in the low-cost personal accounts if they want to.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend? There are many positive elements in the package that he has presented, and I especially welcome the substantial extension to the financial assistance scheme, which will be of great importance to my constituents and others who have worked at Kalamazoo. I understand that he cannot say precisely how many people will be effected by the extension, but they will want to be assured that the matter will be kept under review in the future. Finally, may I add my voice to those who have stressed the importance of speeding up the administration of the scheme? Some people have immediate needs, and it is important that they be addressed now.
Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We will continue to look at every aspect of the matters that he has raised to ensure that the scheme works as we want it to. We think that roughly another 20,000 people will be eligible for additional support under the financial assistance scheme measures that I have announced today.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): And finally, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing the statement to run on, so that so many hon. Members could get in. However, my right hon. Friend will know that there are probably more existing and future members of the failed Turner and Newall pension scheme in my constituency than anywhere else. We are hopeful that, if necessary, the pension protection fund will come to that schemes rescue, but the matter raises questions about employer contribution holidays, and about the relation between British law and the law of the other countries when multinational companies are involved. Does he envisage any changes to the operation of the PPF, or to the criteria by which it operates?
Mr. Hutton: No, the White Paper contains no announcements of changes to the PPF, which has only just begun operation. However, we will keep all matters to do with the reforms under very careful review.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I thank the House for its response to my earlier plea about the way in which questions should be asked. Also, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the way in which he responded to them.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, I asked the Minister for Schools how many children of secondary school age in Wellingborough had not been allocated a school place. I learned this afternoon that the number was a minimum of 11. I think that the Minister may have misled the House, very inadvertently, by suggesting that the number was zero.
I want to speak about four matters that are important to my constituency, but I shall begin with an international problem that has not yet received a sufficient airing in this place. I hope that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who is on the Front Bench this afternoon, will refer it to his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and in the Foreign Office.
Last Monday, the European Parliament decided to allow the fishing deal between the EU and Morocco, which involves the waters off the western Sahara, to go ahead. As an issue, it does not arouse the same level of interest or raise the same hackles as the many and varied conflicts in the middle east, parts of Africa, south-east Asia or South America. However, the UN promised people in the western Sahara that there would be a referendum on their territorial independence. They have waited a long time, and it still has not happened. That is a disgrace.
To rub salt into the wound, the fish in the sea around the western Saharaone of the areas most important resourcesare about to be gobbled up by trawlermen from Spain and other EU countries. Thankfully, it is unlikely that British trawlermen will be involved, as we have so few left. The people of the western Sahara feel that they have been sold out.
I and other hon. Members have asked questions about the matter, and I have been dismayed to discover that the Government seem to take the view that, as long as the deal did not break international law or make a huge impact on the numbers of fish in the sea in that part of the world, there were no grounds on which to object to what the EU was planning.
Another problem has to do with the advice given to British Members of the European Parliament. I do not want to be party political, but Labour MEPs either did not vote or chose not to vote against the scheme, even though the vote represented an opportunity to express the clear position that the Government have adopted in respect of the western Sahara. Unless I am mistaken, that opportunity was not taken. The people in the western Sahara have been sold out by the international community for a generation or more and, as well as speaking words of support for them, we should put those words into action.
I turn now to the four local issues that I want to raise. I shall be brief, as I know that there are lots of other hon. Members who want to speak in the debate. First of all, there is currently a lot of talk about how we can make greater use of renewable energy sources. I am a great advocate of renewables, but the idea of building a barrage across the river Severn has recently been put back on the agenda by the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly. He is a member of my party and a
friend of mine, and has said that it is time for the scheme to be reappraised. I do not mind a review of the decision made some years ago.
The original feasibility study started in the 1970s and carried on until the 1990s. I tried to struggle through all the different papers and the volumes of evidence, and I have two quick comments to make. First, there were strong environmental downsides to building a Severn barrage. The colossal proposal might cater for about25 per cent. of our energy needs, but not least of the downsides was the irretrievable damage to the flora and fauna of the river Severn. Secondly, I am a strong supporter of the so-called nuclear option, as hon. Members may know, but in some quarters it is ruled out as being the wrong approach because of its sheer scale and the fact that it is designed to pump electricity into the national grid when what we want is microgeneration. I agree that we need microgeneration. The Severn barrage is a colossal scheme, paid for not necessarily by the public sector, but largely by the private sector. The come-back of that will be massive development, largely of housing, which will have a big impact on Stroud.
Local government reform is back on the agenda. We may all be tempted to yawn at the prospect of ritual sacrifice and to believe that whatever we say and do, nothing much will happen. I hope that on this occasion something will happen, because it is about time that Gloucestershire moved to some sort of unitary arrangement, especially given that those areas with unitary arrangements seem to have better, simpler local government. I ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to pass my views on to the new Department for Communities and Local Government. If we are to be serious about local government reform, please can we make sure that the proposals are properly aired and that we consider the benefits, not just the faults, of the proposals? A return to the status quo is unacceptable.
I see advantages for Gloucestershire becoming a two-authority county, although there are arguments for one authority. The current arrangement of six districts and one county lead to great confusion. We must ensure that that confusion is put to bed once and for all and that we give people the service that they deserve. Health cuts mean that that requirement is greater than ever, because we desperately need to clarify the relationship between social services and health provision.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The hon. Gentleman talks a lot of sense, as he always does. Does he share my despair at the removal of democracy from local people? Does he want democracy taken to the lowest level and to stop regionalisation?
Mr. Drew: Of course I do. Double devolution is a trendy term. As a town councillor for the past 18 years, I strongly believe that the first layer of government has a part to play, but we do not need three layers of government. We need two layers of largely local government. We need to empower urban areas so that they have that first layer of community, neighbourhood
government. We need to see that through as quickly as possible with a democratic mandate. The Government talk about leadership, fitting with the local authority and value for money. I am happy to have that debate, but I am not happy to end up with the same fudge.
We need to sort out our rail service, especially the status of the line between Kemble and Swindonthat is the London line for me. In my constituency I am in the fortunate position of having a north-south line and an east-west line. Many years ago someone had the bright idea to single-track the line between Kemble and Swindon, and that was to extend all the way to Cheltenham. Whoever came up with that was hardly looking to the future because it is now the cause of significant delays. When trains run late other trains have to wait for the nine to 10 miles of single track to become clear. We are not talking about the usual cattle train moving people backwards and forwards; we are talking about 125s and a mainline service.
When I was first elected, the CBI said that its most important objective was to have a first-class rail servicein terms of service, not ticketsfrom London to Cheltenham. We have not seen any investment to achieve that, but that line has to be re-signalled in the next decade or two, so we may see it yet. I should like to see that front-ended and brought forward as a matter of urgency. I think that I am able to call upon the support of the Great Western, which has now won the Greater Western franchise. It seems interested in how we could redouble the line and get trains moving much more easily, frequently and without lateness being built in because of the lateness of other trains.
Finally, I congratulate the Government on doing what I think is right. I was very pleased with the Affordable Rural Housing Commission last week when it made important statements on how we need to get more affordable housing into our ruralities. It offered ideas of how we might do that, such as changing the planning system, investing more money and showing more inclination to make sure that when houses are built we build more affordable and social housing. Pleasingly, there was a particular mention of an idea that some of us in Stroud have been pioneering on community land trusts or what is technically called locally, Gloucestershire Land For People. We hope to do a deal with English Partnerships on the Cashes Green hospital site, which will yield many benefits. I am sure that many hon. Members now know something about community land trusts. The one great advantage is that the asset value is locked away so that people, while sharing in the appreciation of their property value, cannot sell the land. The land remains in communal ownership. The idea sounds rather socialist in principle, but is widely used in the United States, where there are good examples of community land trusts, and many other parts of the world. We are looking for an early decision that that would be the preferred bid for that siteI am about to become a director, so I should declare an interest. The people behind the bid have been given encouragement and resources. That would be a model for the rest of the country, so this is not just about Stroud getting a bit of a lift. We would be doing something that could be adopted more widely to provide the sort of answers that we need in order to provide affordable housing.
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