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Financial Assistance Scheme

11. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): How much has been distributed by the financial assistance scheme; and if he will make a statement. [140300]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): As at 25 May 2007, the financial assistance scheme had paid out more than £4.6 million gross—more than £3.6 million net—to more than 1,200 qualifying members. We are paying everyone we can, and members who believe that they are eligible for assistance but are not being paid should ask their pension scheme trustees to apply on their behalf.

Mr. Robathan: I do not think that that will be of much comfort to the members of the pension scheme of British United Shoe Machinery in Leicestershire, who are still waiting for money after the collapse of their scheme. Will the Minister confirm that more than 9,000 people are eligible and that only a very small fraction of that number have been paid from the FAS; and that, even going by the figures that he gave, it has cost more than twice as much to administer the scheme as has been disbursed?

James Purnell: My understanding from meeting people from the scheme is that people in the BUSM scheme are being paid. I believe that 18 members’ survivors have been assessed for initial payments and six are in receipt of initial payments.

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The more general point is that we cannot pay people if the schemes do not give us the information on what people are owed. We are working with some trustees, such as those at BUSM, where we get good co-operation, but there are others who are not co-operating with us to give us the information we need. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear today that he is prepared to use criminal sanctions against those trustees who persistently refused to give us the information we need.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): The Minister said a few moments ago that more than 100,000 beneficiaries of the FAS scheme are now getting the money, but how many of the 125,000 are getting their full entitlement under the scheme and how many of the 700 Dexion workers whose pensions were stolen from them have received the full amount that they were promised?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman’s question demonstrates a misunderstanding that is quite prevalent. There is no system to pay all 125,000 people now, because the vast majority have not reached pension age. No one is saying that all 125,000 should be paid now. The key point to make is that trustees should be giving us information on people who have reached pension age, so that we can pay them—

Mike Penning: You have not answered the question.

James Purnell: I have. The hon. Gentleman asked that all 125,000 be paid, but no one is proposing that because the majority are below the age of retirement.

Mike Penning: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We do not have points of order at this stage in the proceedings.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Will the Minister disown the claim made on GMTV recently by the Chancellor that every single one of the 125,000 will get at least 80 percent. of their pension? Does he accept that that claim is inaccurate and cynical, and that most FAS claimants, when they get paid at all, will get only half of their original entitlement, with many receiving much less? Why is this Government treating them like second-class citizens?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I do not disagree with the Chancellor, for the good reason that there is no difference between the hon. Gentleman’s party and mine on the issue. The only difference is on whether more taxpayers’ money should be put into the scheme. A few weeks ago, the hon. Gentleman said that there should not be more money for it, but when we found money to put into it and doubled the scheme to nearly £2 billion in net present value, the Conservatives agreed with us. The difference is that we were prepared to put more taxpayers’ money into it, and they were not.

Post Office

14. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What the criteria are for awarding the contract to operate the successor to the Post Office card account; and if he will make a statement. [140304]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): As I made clear in my written statement of 17 May, the new account will be available nationally, and eligibility for the new account will be on the same basis as for the Post Office card account.

Mr. Carmichael: May I suggest to the Minister that when the franchise for the new card account is let, he looks closely at the BBC’s experience of letting the franchise for the sale of television licences to PayPoint? That has left literally hundreds of constituents from the smaller islands in my community with no access to an over-the-counter service. Will he give me an undertaking that whatever form the new account takes, it will be accessible to all communities in the country?

Mr. Plaskitt: Yes. As the hon. Gentleman will see from the written statement that I issued on 17 May, we have set out the criteria under which we have asked interested parties to submit an expression of interest. We made it clear that there must be national coverage, and that the account will have to be available in rural areas. That should reassure the hon. Gentleman that the facilities currently enjoyed by his constituents with card accounts will continue to be provided; in fact, there will be additional activity under the account provided by the successor account.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ensure that there are sufficient security measures in place for the successor card account, so that we can prevent a type of fraud that I dealt with recently in a constituency case? A couple in my constituency in South Yorkshire were threatened with the loss of jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit and other benefits because a couple in Canary Wharf were claiming funds using a Post Office card account that was opened with my constituents’ details. Will he ensure that extra security measures are brought in with the successor card account?

Mr. Plaskitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Thankfully, generally speaking we have very few problems relating to fraud with the Post Office card account. From the sound of it, the case that he raised with me is more an issue of identity theft and of course, as he will be aware, the Government are taking many measures to try to bear down on that. The existing card account has been largely devoid of opportunities for fraud, and I am certain that we will carefully consider such issues when we award the contract for the successor product.

Child Support Agency

15. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): When he expects the Child Support Agency’s successor organisation to be operational. [140305]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Subject to parliamentary approval, from 2008-09.

Ann Winterton: What assurances can the Minister give the House that when the new body—the child maintenance and enforcement commission—is operational,
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it will not repeat the mistakes of the past, in which hundreds of thousands of families were failed, and in which the parent with financial responsibility was often excluded and marginalised? Does he agree that families need fairness, but they also need fathers?

Mr. Plaskitt: If the hon. Lady studies the report that Sir David Henshaw undertook for us and the subsequent White Paper that we issued on replacing the Child Support Agency with a new operation, she will see that we have addressed the very issues that she raises. I think that there is consensus across the House that the CSA’s performance was not up to standard, and I think there is acceptance that reforms that were introduced along the way, and which were designed to improve its performance, have not delivered the results that all of us in the House wanted. That is why we came to the view that there had to be a fresh start, and a different way of doing things and of offering a system of child maintenance. The scheme set out for the new commission is fundamentally different from that of the old CSA in many respects. The hon. Lady will see just how different the scheme is if she carefully studies the White Paper, the proposals and the Bill that is to be introduced shortly. The scheme holds out the prospect of the new body delivering the standard and quality of service to its clients that we hoped for, but never managed to achieve, under the CSA.

Pensions Reform

16. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): If he will make a statement on the progress of pensions reform. [140306]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): We have made significant progress on long-term reform of the pensions system, which began back in November 2002 with the establishment of the Pensions Commission. The Pensions Bill is now entering the Committee stage in the Lords, and last December we published our proposals to transform the culture of under-saving in the UK for millions of people by introducing personal accounts.

Dr. Lewis: But does the Minister agree that, if pension reform is to be worth the name, there must be a strong restoration of confidence in the procedures to prevent people who have lost pensions from sustaining those losses? He referred to the Bill going through the Lords. Will he guarantee that if the Lords pass amendments on Wednesday that will ensure that those losses are made up, he and his fellow Ministers will not ensure that his hon. Friends are whipped into voting against those amendments and against their conscience?

James Purnell: Here comes the cavalry to rescue the Opposition Front-Bench team from not having managed to get a question out earlier. The Opposition’s protestations about a cross-party agreement behind their amendment are starting to fall apart. Did they see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) wrote recently that the amendment is a dodgy amendment—

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): He signed it.

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James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman obviously did not explain to him the implication of what he was saying, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is not in favour of using unclaimed pension funds to—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We want to hear what the Minister has to say. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) can speak for himself.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission , was asked—

Energy Efficiency

18. Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): If he will make a statement on energy efficiency on the parliamentary estate. [140281]

Nick Harvey (North Devon): The parliamentary estate has an energy and waste saving policy which is due for review later this year and can take on board any comments that the hon. Lady and anybody else might wish to make. The current energy efficiency target is to make a 15 per cent. reduction in energy consumption per square metre of building floor area by 2010-11, relative to the base year 1999-2000.

Mrs. Hodgson: Would the Commission consider the use of wind, solar and water power as ways to source its energy needs through microgeneration, on the basis that the House should lead by example in the fight against climate change?

Nick Harvey: I can assure the hon. Lady that the Commission is well seized of the need for the House to lead by example, and I can further assure her that some of those options are being explored even at this moment. We have had meetings with representatives of the microgeneration industries and we are exploring the practicalities of pursuing any of those options.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am delighted that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) has raised this issue. The waste of energy in this building is appalling. Anybody who has walked its corridors at night knows that it is like the Mary Celeste—all the lights on and nobody here. In May, when it was hot, the heating was on. Can the hon. Gentleman please assure us that there will be a proper investigation of the matter, and that we will develop modern techniques of switching off lights when there is nobody in the building? They operate on infra-red, I understand, and I think we could do it pretty easily for not very much money.

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that such devices have existed in parts of the estate, notably in Portcullis House, where there were many complaints from hon. Members working late in the evening that they were plunged into darkness sitting at their desks
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because they had not moved sufficiently to trigger the infra-red light sensors. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There is a significant problem of energy waste. A variety of high-tech methods of dealing with that have been explored and, where appropriate, they will be fitted, but as I have said on previous occasions, nothing beats the responsibility of hon. Members and other users of the estate for turning off lights when they leave the room.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Although I appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, does he agree that it is ridiculous that the annunciator screens are left on when the House is not sitting? Not just overnight during a parliamentary Session but during the long summer recess of 10 weeks, one can come into the Palace and see all along the corridors screens saying, “House adjourned”.

Nick Harvey: I am happy to investigate the hon. Lady’s point. However, as I have said, the annunciator service into Members’ offices can be turned off by individual Members, and indeed should be.

Visitor Facilities

19. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What representations he has received on visitor facilities for the Houses of Parliament. [140282]

Nick Harvey (North Devon): The Commission has taken a close interest in facilities for those visiting the House. Recent improvements include the employment of visitor assistants, and we look forward to the eventual opening of the visitor reception building. The Commission will consider the latest recommendations from the Administration Committee shortly.

Ben Chapman: Although I welcome the new facilities and the new building, have we not for a long time missed a trick in terms of getting more school parties to visit the House of Commons? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as two thirds of those visiting the education unit come from London and the south-east, we might well think of providing support for travel for schools from other regions of the UK to get a more equitable distribution of visits so that our children can be more involved in the political process in the Palace of Westminster?

Nick Harvey: I have every sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. I will not compare constituency distances, but obviously those coming from Wirral, like those coming from North Devon, are confronted with the problem to which he alludes. Hon. Members have made requests to the Administration Committee for some sort of public subsidy to be offered to help school parties from further distances to come here, and a proposal will come forward later this year which the Commission will then consider.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Pursuant to the question by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), one way to improve visitor facilities at the House would be to give young people the chance not merely to observe but to participate in our proceedings. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that proposition
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and, if so, does he accept that there is a powerful case for acting to ensure that organised school parties can have, at periodic intervals during recesses, staged debates on the Floor of the House to enhance their interest in this House and to prepare them for their future contributions? [ Interruption . ] The fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) disagrees gives me great hope for the future.

Nick Harvey: That is not an idea that the Commission has had put before it, and we have not had the chance to consider it. I can see that there would be opposition from certain quarters to such a thing, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to advance such a proposal, I am sure that it will be considered with proper reverence.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Is it correct that the new entrance for visitors, which is nearly completed and appears to start just outside St. Stephen’s entrance, is going to guide them down and round the building in order to come back on themselves to begin the Line of Route? Is that not a masterpiece of planning, and could we not congratulate those who are responsible?

Nick Harvey: I believe that what the hon. Lady says is basically true. People will be guided in and then brought through the north entrance, which will be both the way in and the way out for visitors, enabling them to have a good look at Westminster Hall in the process.

Emerging Democracies

23. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): How much money and staff time were spent by the House on developing the capacity of Parliaments in emerging democracies in 2006-07. [140286]

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): There are many ways in which Members and their staff contribute to developing the capacity of Parliaments in emerging democracies, but they are not funded from within a single budget. For example, during 2006-07 the Overseas Office dealt with 95 visits from 66 countries and ran eight professional development programmes for parliamentary staff from 16 mostly Commonwealth countries. Three staff are engaged directly on this work, with a total identifiable cost of about £200,000, of which about one tenth was spent on visits to other countries.

Hugh Bayley: It is good to hear that the staff of this place do so much to help parliamentarians from other countries to learn from our centuries of experience. However, does the hon. Gentleman think that it would be wise if we established a dedicated unit within Parliament to provide such support and advice to other Parliaments in emerging democracies? Canada has had such a unit for decades; should we not examine the feasibility of setting one up ourselves?

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