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I hope that that does provide some reassurance. This is well-made policy, which means that the innocent will not be caught, but those who are paying large amounts for tax avoidance purposes will.

Mr. Hoban: I am grateful for the quotation. I shall consider the issue of certainty in a moment.

Rob Marris rose—

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Gentleman seems to be hovering on the verge of an intervention. Does he wish to intervene again?

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity. Perhaps I am not understanding him correctly: I cannot see what is so complicated about knowing whether one has reinvested a lump sum from a pension scheme, returning it to the pension scheme.

Mr. Hoban: If it is so clear, why are 21 examples and 28 pages of guidance necessary? However, let me take up something that the Economic Secretary said. Clause 159 is quite short and has a broad application, but its impact is mitigated by the 28 pages of guidance, which are very clear.

Ed Balls: Let me give the hon. Gentleman some further reassurance. We have debated the issue before, and I shall return to it shortly, but let me give him a second quotation from the Chartered Institute of Taxation:

In fact, there are almost 28 pages of them. It is the volume of those worked examples that means that the guidance is fit for purpose. The hon. Gentleman ought to praise us for being so open and transparent in our efforts to help people, rather than criticising us.

Mr. Hoban: What the Economic Secretary has said demonstrates why the position is not as clear as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West suggested.

Let me now deal with an issue that relates to amendments Nos. 62 and 14. The Chartered Institute of Taxation said that it was happy with both the clause and the guidance notes. The clause will remain on the
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statute book if the Bill is given its Third Reading tomorrow, but the guidance notes will not be on the statute book. HMRC can alter them.

My point is that there should be more certainty and more clarity about the tax regime. That is why the amending provisions propose that the Treasury be given regulation-making powers to set out the application of sub-paragraph (2) in order to create that certainty. The issues covered in the guidance notes would then be on the statute book through secondary legislation, so they could not suddenly disappear or be changed overnight without proper parliamentary scrutiny. Revenue and Customs and the Treasury would then be forced to produce clear, watertight wording rather than use 21 examples to clear up the scope and application of clause 159. It provides a way of moving from abstract philosophical treatises to the concrete reality of law and regulation. We would also be able to revisit the guidance when it changes as the statutory instruments would need to be amended.

I was grateful to the Economic Secretary in Committee when he made a kind offer, namely, that if significant material changes were made in the guidance, he would ensure that they were circulated to the Opposition so that we would have a chance to comment upon them. He said that he would take advice to ensure that the Government continued to take a consultative approach to guidance issues. I am flattered, as would be my successor, to be given the opportunity to comment at some point when the guidance changes, but rather than leaving it to a single Member to comment, it would be preferable if the Committee had the opportunity to question the regulations. My proposals are an attempt to achieve some clarity, consistency and parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that the guidance notes, which are such an integral part of the application of clause 159, achieve a degree of security and certainty. It is an important matter and I conclude my remarks on that point.

Mr. Dunne: I shall make a couple of brief observations in support of new clause 3, proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). His concluding comments about the need for consistency and clarity were well made. We are entering a new era for pensions in this country. Following the introduction of A-day, individuals now have the opportunity to accumulate substantial pensions— [Interruption.] Before the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) invites me to declare an interest, I will maintain my consistent and clear conduct before the House by declaring that I will be the beneficiary in due course of a personal pension and I am also a member, like everyone else in the House, of the parliamentary pension scheme. I declare that fully for the record.

The introduction of the new regime under A-day means that, at the upper end of the pension market, a decision needs to be taken by individuals who are considering whether to add to their pension funds over the coming years. The decision means setting aside potentially significant amounts of money—up to £200,000 in the current year. On my parliamentary salary, it is unlikely for me, but it applies to those who have sufficient income. They have to decide whether or not it is an appropriate repository for their funds.

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The Government need to deal with the logical inconsistency of having established the alternative secured pension structure, but allowing some individuals not to have to take out an annuity at the age of 75, while others do. If the Government are paying attention, they need to reflect on whether to relax the compulsory annuitisation regime and allow individuals, on reaching 75, to withdraw income and thereby suffer income tax and, if these people were to die with large residual amounts in their pension fund, whether those amounts should form part of the estate and be taxed under the inheritance tax regime. That would an entirely logical and consistent approach to these larger individual pension amounts and would in no way conflict with the objectives of the Turner commission and subsequent White Paper.

7.15 pm

I remind Ministers that the White Paper addresses the part of the population that has little prospect of paying inheritance tax and encourages saving among those earning up to £32,000 a year. Such individuals are unlikely to be able to accumulate sufficient assets over their lifetimes to get into the inheritance tax net, which is an objective of the rules on annuitisation. The Government need to look into that as a means of refining the White Paper, which I would greatly welcome. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, I do not anticipate that the Government will accept the new clauses, but they need to reflect on these issues as the White Paper becomes an Act over the next year. By next year, I expect the Government to have reflected on these provisions and to introduce them into the Budget.

Rob Marris: What does the hon. Gentleman believe the minimum retirement income should be, as specified in new clause 3?

Mr. Dunne: I am not a statistician or an actuary, so I cannot foresee the right amount, but I suspect that it should be close to the level that would take people out of means-testing. That would be the principle to apply, but I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman exactly how many pounds the amount should be. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West managed to intervene, just as I concluded my remarks.

Julia Goldsworthy: The Conservative new clause 3 provides an alternative to the current position, whereby people are forced to buy an annuity with their pension funds when they reach 75. The Conservatives have made that proposal before, most notably through the private Member’s Bill of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) in 2002. As the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) said, the issue was raised more recently in connection with the Finance Act 2004 and the Pensions Act 2004.

I draw the House’s attention to the ping-pong with the other place at the later stages of the Pensions Bill. This very matter was one of the most significant issues debated and it was the collapse of the Conservative vote in the House of Lords that prevented the opportunity of the provision being written on to the statute books. If the Conservative peers had been able to vote, perhaps we would not be debating the matter now.

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The new clause is designed to limit the requirement to purchase an annuity to the amount that would give the annuitant a minimum retirement income, and it would provide greater flexibility over the remaining residual fund. That contrasts with the current situation in which 75 per cent. of the funds from a money purchase pension must be used to purchase an annuity by the age of 75. Since the scheme was set up, life expectancy has increased considerably, which alone might provide the Government with a reason to look into the matter again. The new clause would amend the Finance Act 2004, set up a retirement income fund and create a rule whereby withdrawals cannot be made unless the individual has purchased a relevant annuity that is linked to the retail prices index.

The hon. Member for Fareham will know that the Liberal Democrats have supported the approach in principle in the past and we do not intend to change our minds today—we will still be on the side of the angels. However, I have one query about the drafting of the new clause in respect of an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) has mentioned.

The principle behind the minimum retirement income is that it exists to prevent individuals from withdrawing all their money from their pension and falling on to state benefits. The annuity that would need to be purchased under new clause 3 would prevent that from happening, but in terms of qualifying for state benefits, all income is taken into account, not just the income from the annuity. The hon. Member for Fareham assumed that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon was talking about fluctuating income, but it could affect someone with a steady income close to the minimum income. If they were below it, they would fall on to state benefits. However, under the provision, all the money in the pension pot would need to go into the annuity to provide a minimum income that, together with their other income, might take them significantly above the minimum income requirement in the new clause. I hope that the hon. Member for Fareham will clarify the operation of the new clause in that respect.

Finally, I have a question for the Economic Secretary. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions promised a review of the pensions situation following the Turner report. When might we see that?

Steve Webb: I want to make a brief contribution. These days, I follow health matters, but when I saw that annuities were to be debated today I could not resist one last bash.

I am sure that our new Economic Secretary, who studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, will be familiar with the concept of a Pareto improvement—that it is possible to act in such a way that no one is worse off, but someone is better off. In economics, of course, that is highly desirable. The reform of annuity law is a Pareto improvement—what these days we would call a win-win situation. No one loses if we can reform annuities in a way that gives people choices, at no cost to the taxpayer. As has been noted, the implications for means-tested benefit expenditure and the possible loss of tax revenue are the two areas of worry in terms of cost to the taxpayer.

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New clause 3 is rather excessive in its attempts to deal with the risk falling on means-tested benefits. It is too prescriptive because, as I said in an earlier intervention, some people might be able to draw down their entire pension pot and still not run any risk of falling within the realm of means-tested benefits. However, new clause 3 would oblige them to buy an index-linked annuity of a certain value. The official Opposition do not know how much that would be, even though they want us to support the new clause, but that proposal is unnecessary and unduly restrictive.

We understand that there has to be a fail-safe—and I believe that it should be individual-specific—to ensure that a person’s pension pot is not raided to such an extent that he or she falls at the mercy of means-tested benefits. However, I have always believed that the Treasury always gets its tax money anyway. For example, tax is paid when a pension pot is drawn down, and also when people leave money when they die.

The Treasury’s ideological line is to convince us that tax relief is some sort of incentive. By and large, with the exception of what happens with the lump sum, tax relief is about taxing things once rather than twice. Our tax regime gives tax exemption on the way in and levies tax on the way out, but that is no reason to say that any change would undermine the incentive purpose of tax relief. Pension tax relief is about avoiding double taxation, not about incentives.

As long as the tax is paid at the end in some way, why should the Treasury care how it is paid? It could be paid as a charge on the un-annuitised fund at death, or on the pension that is eventually drawn at the end. It could be also be paid on the money drawn out while a person remains alive, but the Treasury will always get its tax, so who loses?

New clause 3 is unduly cautious, although the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) noted that the Government have given ground in response to the concerns expressed by the Plymouth Brethren. However, society always benefits when people in their old age are given new choices about their income. It is true that we are talking here about those who are better off, but that is no problem for the new Liberal Democrat party. Giving people choices is all part of our new approach. We approve of new freedoms for people on higher incomes to make choices.

The new clause would give a limited number of people new choices, at no cost to the Exchequer. I cannot see why a reasonable man such as the Economic Secretary would not be persuaded by that argument.

Ed Balls: I am pleased to respond to the debate, and to have an opportunity to restate the Government’s policy on annuities. However, I shall first answer the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). I shall resist all temptation to stray on to the philosophy of Mr. Davidson or the economics of Mr. Pareto. The hon. Gentleman defined a Pareto improvement as something that left no one worse off and a number of people better off, which sounds to me like the definition of a Labour Government.

We estimate that the cost of the new clause would be around £100 million. It is certainly not cost free. To
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implement and pay for it, the Liberal Democrats would have to raise from capital gains tax increases not £12 billion but £12.1 billion. Moreover, we discussed the Conservative idea of abolishing inheritance tax—at a cost of £1 billion—when we considered the previous group of amendments. Adopting new clause 3 would cause that total to rise to £1.1 billion. I therefore counsel hon. Members of both Opposition parties to be cautious about adopting policies that would cost £100 million, given that some of the other commitments that they have made would require substantial tax increases elsewhere.

I said that I wanted to restate the Government’s approach to annuities, and to reiterate the response to the recommendations of the Pensions Commission made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in his recently published White Paper. In that document, we reiterated our policy of securing an income in retirement, and we rejected the principle underlying this new clause—that people aged 75 should not have to buy an annuity. At the same time, in response to some of the points made by the commission, we undertook to publish later in the year a detailed paper setting out the evidence base for our policy.

The Government’s policy on annuities is very clear. Very generous tax reliefs are provided to encourage people to save for their retirement. Contributions may be paid with the benefit of tax relief and investment income and growth may accumulate in a pension fund tax free. In addition, when people come to take their pension benefits, they can take up to 25 per cent. of their total pension pot as a tax-free lump sum. In return for those generous tax incentives on the way in, there are long-standing rules that require a person, by the age of 75 at the latest, to convert the remainder of the pension pot into a secure retirement income for life, or to provide for dependants’ benefits. Over 90 per cent. of people aged 70 have already bought an annuity, so only a very small number of people have to make such decisions when they reach 75.

I shall deal later with the Pensions Commission’s recommendations on annuities, but its report endorsed the fundamental principle that a retirement income should be secured by an annuity, in return for tax relief on the way in. It said:

For the vast majority of people who do not get a pension paid directly from their scheme, an annuity will be the best way to secure an income for their retirement. The most recent evidence suggests that annuities are fairly priced and value for money. People do not know how long they will live after they retire, and tend to underestimate their longevity. Without a requirement to secure an income, there is a danger that they will run down their retirement savings either too fast or too slowly.

Insurance companies know, broadly and on average, how long people will live, and offer products that pool the risk. Welfare is therefore improved at the aggregate level.

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Steve Webb: Is that not a rather paternalistic approach? Why should not people who receive an occupational pension sufficient to keep them above means-tested benefits be able to choose to take a risk about whether they draw their pot down too fast or too slowly? As long as the tax is paid and the state does not lose, why should they not be free to do what they like?

Ed Balls: I shall give a more detailed explanation of the £100 million cost of the new clause in a moment, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the median pension pot is about £25,000 a year, although many people get much less than that. To achieve an annuity of that size, a person would have to have a pension pot very substantially above the median amount. The pension pots of 19 people out of 20 would be too small to give an annuity of that size. We are talking about a policy that would benefit only the wealthiest 4 or 5 per cent. of the population in pension pot terms.

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