Previous Section Index Home Page

Financial Assistance Scheme

9. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of private pension schemes to discuss the financial assistance scheme. [146352]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I have no appointments as yet to meet private sector pension providers, but I hope to do so in due course. In the meantime, my officials are in contact with the various private sector providers.

Mr. Bellingham: I too welcome the hon. and learned Member to his new ministerial post. Is he aware that I represent a large number of constituents who are members of the Albert Fisher pension scheme and that, even after the Government’s changes, they are not going to receive their full pension entitlement? In other words, they will still be short-changed in their retirement. They blame the former Chancellor for the devastation caused to private pensions. Are they right to do so?

Mr. O'Brien: They are certainly not right to do so. The previous Government set in place a whole series of changes to pension laws, which caused all sorts of problems for the pensions industry. Before laying blame on the Government, the hon. Gentleman should take the mote out of his own eye.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Should my hon. and learned Friend meet representatives of private pension schemes, will he tell them that if they had not spent so much time on contributions holidays, there would not be the same need for a financial assistance scheme? Will he remind them that it is thanks to the efforts of the present Government that thousands and thousands of pensioners will now be able to claim compensation rather than die in poverty?

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend is right. Contribution holidays, which were encouraged by some of the policies put in place by a previous Chancellor—now Lord Lamont—were part of the problem. This Government had to tackle the pensions mis-selling crisis that was also created by the previous Government. We created the Pension Protection Fund to deal with the problems of occupational pensions, we have put in place a new pensions regulator and we are helping 125,000 people through the financial assistance scheme. We will continue to put in place policies through the Pensions Bill to ensure that we remedy the various problems that were indeed caused by the previous Government.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I have two sets of constituents who have lost their pensions: people
2 July 2007 : Column 664
who worked for MG Rover and those who worked for United Engineering Forgings. Those who lost their pension from MG Rover receive the protection of the Pension Protection Fund, while those in UEF secure only the financial assistance scheme, which offers considerably less compensation. Will the Minister now put my constituents out of their misery by finally accepting the lifeboat proposal championed by Conservative Members that would provide equality of compensation to my two equal sets of constituents?

Mr. O'Brien: Perhaps the hon. Lady should listen to her own shadow Chancellor who said at a meeting of The Independent newspaper that at the Conservative conference,

He continued by saying that

This Government have put forward a set of proposals in pensions legislation that will deal with many of the issues relating to people who have lost pensions. Also, the proposals in the financial assistance scheme create the right balance between the taxpayer helping some of those who are affected and ensuring that pensions get a reasonable deal. The basic minimum that we are guaranteeing is 80 per cent. If they are covered by the Pension Protection Fund, they will be able to receive 90 per cent., but we should remember that people covered by that scheme have to make a contribution—it is more like an insurance policy—while no contribution was made by people under the FAS.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I should like to welcome my hon. and learned Friend to his position. Can he tell me—or, if not, will he write to me—whether primary legislation will be necessary in order for people to access private pension schemes in the City?

Mr. O'Brien: As my hon. Friend knows, Andrew Young is undertaking a review. We hope to get an interim report by the end of July and then a final report towards the end of this year. We then hope to be able to identify what we can access in respect of available funds. One of the concerns about the lifeboat proposal is that it is really an unfunded commitment. The Conservatives are quite happy to make such commitments, but we are the Government and we have to deal with these issues responsibly. Whatever we propose has to be properly funded.

Occupational Health

10. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Health and Safety Executive on European Union legislation on occupational health. [146353]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Most recently, we have discussed the new European Community strategy on health and safety at work. This is a wide-ranging
2 July 2007 : Column 665
strategy for the next five years and we welcome it. The ideas that it contains fit well with our own existing policies and programmes.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he ensure that, in those talks, proper attention is given to workplace-related violence, particularly as it affects health workers, shop workers and transport workers, so that they can get proper protection and recognition of the injuries that they suffer at work?

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. I can confirm that, through the Health and Safety Executive, we issue sector-specific guidance to each of the sectors that she has just mentioned. Happily, that is helping to reduce the incidence of violence at work. Over the past 10 years, the number of incidents has fallen from 1.3 million a year to 600,000. Even that level is completely unacceptable, however, and that kind of violence cannot be tolerated. I recommend the freedom from fear campaign being mounted by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which is aimed at countering violence in the retail trade. On 11 July, USDAW is holding a respect for shop workers day, which I hope that all hon. Members will support in their constituencies.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Public Engagement (Debates)

18. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What plans she has to make debate on the Floor of the House more engaging for the general public. [146363]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The Modernisation Committee published its report last week on revitalising the Chamber. The Committee made a number of recommendations which would make the business of the House more engaging for the general public by promoting greater topicality and greater clarity.

Julie Morgan: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply and congratulate her on her appointments. I am very pleased to be able to put the first question to her in her new role. In order to make debates on the Floor of the House more engaging to the public, would she consider a greater role for public petitions? They are enormously important to our constituents, and often signed by thousands of people, yet they are usually presented late at night when hon. Members are rushing from the Chamber. Will she look at what happens in Wales and Scotland and perhaps take similar measures forward here?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for her warm wishes. She raised a point about petitions, and I will certainly look at that. I understand that the Procedure Committee has already looked into what happens in Scotland and Wales, and I will look at that too. The Procedure Committee has considered the question of petitions and produced a substantive report, to which
2 July 2007 : Column 666
the Government will respond. I should like to reaffirm the point behind my hon. Friend’s question. Petitions are an important link between individual constituents and their Member of Parliament, and between the people and the Government. They are also important for members of the public and for this House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In congratulating the right hon. Lady on her appointment, may I ask her whether she will find time for a whole-day debate on the Modernisation Committee report, either shortly before or shortly after the forthcoming recess?

Ms Harman: I hear the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and I know that the House will want to have enough time to debate these important topics. The House will be aware that the Prime Minister has also flagged up this important issue, and we will look at the hon. Gentleman’s request sympathetically.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post; it is great to see a moderniser in this role. One of the barriers to public engagement with this place is our Order of Business. It is obscure, to put it politely. In her new role, will she try to create a plain English, simple version of what happens here, so that citizens can know what we are talking about and seek to influence it?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind welcome to me in my new position. I very much agree with her comments about the Order Paper. However, it is not just members of the public who find our procedures and the Order Paper baffling; some Members of Parliament—even quite long-standing Members of Parliament—could be forgiven for not understanding them. We have to move to plain English, which is why, when publishing the draft Bill on reform of the coroners system, I made sure that we had the legalese on one side of the page and plain English on the other, and we can make progress on a number of documents in that way. It is not only the public who do not understand; many of us do not either.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): While fully supporting the request made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) about the debating of petitions, may I say that the House would more adequately engage with the public if more Back Benchers were called to speak in important debates? Does the right hon. Lady not feel, therefore, that considerable thought should be given to reducing the time taken by Front Benchers?

Ms Harman: I know that this is something that the Modernisation Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is one of the longest-standing and most respected members, has looked into, and it has made a proposal. The previous Leader of the House said that there were many proposals in that Select Committee’s report that the Government would be likely to back, and we will, therefore, issue our response shortly.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I invite the Leader of the House to discuss with the Chief Whip the notice given to Back Benchers of Statutory Instrument Committees? Often, Members are given
2 July 2007 : Column 667
only 48 hours’ notice or less that they will serve on a Committee, which means that scrutiny is reduced to a charade. There is no earthly reason why most Government Departments could not flag up statutory instruments with two weeks’ notice so that people could volunteer who were interested in the subject and in providing scrutiny. That would be one of the great innovations of—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Ms Harman: This is something that my hon. Friend has raised before, and I am happy to engage in discussion, including with the Chief Whip, who, although he gave no sign of it, was listening acutely to what my hon. Friend said.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I also welcome the right hon. and learned Lady to her new position? I am sure that, like me, she will find it an enjoyable and satisfying role, and I look forward to working with her to protect the interests of the House and of all hon. Members.

It is, of course, important for our democracy that the public find debates in Parliament more engaging, but does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that the public will be more engaged with parliamentary debate if they think that they can trust politicians? For example, during the Labour deputy leadership campaign, the new part-time Leader of the House said “I agree” that the Government should apologise for the Iraq war. Now she says:

over the Iraq war. Does she agree that examples such as that merely increase public cynicism and disengage people from Parliament?

Ms Harman: If the right hon. Lady has something that has me quoted as saying that, she can send it to me. It is a pity, when we need to work closely together in the interests of the House, which is important for both sides and for democracy, that she should make that point. I would welcome her sending me any quote that said that. None the less, I look forward to working with her and with Opposition Members to make sure that the House works better. We need strong government, but strong government works better when it is held to account by a strong Parliament, and that is what I aim to achieve.

House of Commons Commission

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

Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill

19. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What assessment the Commission has made of the implications of the terms of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill for the exercise of its responsibilities; and if he will make a statement. [146364]

2 July 2007 : Column 668

Nick Harvey (North Devon): The Commission has not made any such assessment. However, the Members Estimate Committee, as its minutes published on the internet show, decided on 29 January that the publication scheme for information about Members’ allowances that has operated for the past three years would continue, notwithstanding any change in the law that might arise from the Bill. On 21 May, the Committee reaffirmed its commitment to making sure that the public are properly informed about Parliament, not least through the publication scheme.

Norman Baker: My hon. Friend will know that the information tribunal recently upheld a request that I made for information that the Commission had fought tooth and nail. As part of that process, it became apparent that the House of Commons Commission had resisted almost every request for embarrassing information. Does he agree that it is time for the Commission to examine its answering practices to ensure that it is compliant with the Freedom of Information Act 2000?

Nick Harvey: The Commission is not the body responsible for determining responses to such cases. My hon. Friend is mistaken in saying that we have not been replying: more than a third of such applications have been granted immediately. I understand that a tribunal judgment is awaited in one pending case and that options in relation to another will be considered as soon as possible.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Oral Statements

20. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If she will bring forward proposals to prevent Ministers briefing the media on the contents of oral statements before making those statements in the House. [146366]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The ministerial code makes it clear that

I strongly support that principle. As the Prime Minister said at the weekend, Parliament should hear the contents of statements before the media do.

Mr. Bone: I welcome the Leader of the House’s comments, but is she aware that two statements that are to be made this week—one tomorrow by the Prime Minister on the constitution, and another on Wednesday on health—have been leaked to the press in advance of Members of this House hearing them?

Ms Harman: I do not think that the contents of the statements have been given to the press in advance—and I say to Members that it is important that they attend the Chamber to hear the contents of statements. In my view, whether it is announced outside the House that there will be a statement is of less importance than
2 July 2007 : Column 669
some other issues. The public should be made aware that there will be a statement, but the contents of the statement must be made to the House first, because the Executive is accountable to Members of this House and they should be the first people to ask questions of Ministers, rather than journalists and broadcasters.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I welcome the right hon. and learned Lady to her new post. Her predecessor was firm about Ministers abiding by the ministerial code of conduct, but is there not now a strong case for strengthening the code, for stopping it
2 July 2007 : Column 670
being under the sole jurisdiction of the Prime Minister, and for introducing in addition a code for Cabinet Government that respects the role of Cabinet Ministers within Cabinet?

Ms Harman: The issues that I as Leader of the House must address include ensuring the following: that there is the right relationship between Ministers and this House; that Members have an opportunity generally to raise issues of concern to their constituents; and that Ministers with responsibility for matters come to this House and give an account of themselves. The other issues raised are, perhaps, not ones for me to address.

Next Section Index Home Page