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The officials said that, at the time, 8 million people were in money purchase schemes. Yet in July 1997, when challenged by Conservatives that the tax changes to pension funds would have a devastating impact, the Prime Minister reassured people, saying:

The changes were not backed by the CBI at the time, although the right hon. Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), now the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, desperately claimed otherwise a few weeks ago. Lord Turner, director general of the CBI from 1995 to 1999, dismissed that claim as completely untrue. Richard Lambert, the current head of the CBI, said that the right hon. Gentleman’s claim was

How right he was, and how clear it is that the culture of spin will not die with the last Prime Minister but will carry on with the next one.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Throughout his speech the right hon. Gentleman has talked about crises in the pension system, but there is nothing in the motion about the state pension. Many of the low-paid to whom he refers rely almost entirely on the state pension for their income. Does he have anything to say about the difficulties with the state pension system as well as the private pension system?

Chris Grayling: There are, of course, huge issues surrounding the state pension. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Opposition support the principle, as
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espoused by the Government—I think that it has cross-party support—of restoring the earnings link. But we want to champion the cause of those who save for their own retirement. It is vital that, as a nation, we restore confidence in the principle of saving for retirement, and under this Government that principle has been dangerously weakened.

It is not the case that, as the Prime Minister has told the House, his 1997 changes were good for pension funds. The charge against him is this. In the areas where he had responsibility, such as taxation and regulation—of course there are factors affecting the markets and the performance of pension funds that are outwith the ability of politicians to influence—in the past 10 years he has plainly got it wrong. The overall effect has been the continuous decline in pensions that we have witnessed.

Since Labour took office in 1997 there has been a collapse in good-quality occupational pension provision, and 60,000 occupational pension schemes have been wound up or have begun the process of winding up. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead said:

The membership of employer-sponsored defined benefit pension schemes has fallen to 35 per cent. of the working-age population, from 46 per cent. in 1997. Now, 47 per cent. of adult employees are not members of any pension scheme, and 6.7 million women have no retirement provision at all, 400,000 more than five years ago—10 years after the election of a Labour Government. That is a damning record.

Rebuilding trust in occupational pension savings is a long-term issue that must be addressed. But there is also a pressing short-term issue that must be dealt with urgently, and it is something that the Secretary of State and I will undoubtedly be debating in the next few weeks. The failure of occupational pension schemes has, sadly, had all too human consequences. Since 1997, 125,000 people have lost pension savings and been left with little or nothing when their pension schemes failed. These are decent people who have saved all their lives and done the right thing. They did what successive Governments told them to do.

Last year, the ombudsman produced an independent report on the scandal, and found the Government guilty of maladministration. Since then, the European Court of Justice, the High Court and the Public Administration Committee have criticised the Government’s handling of the crisis. Yet Ministers have still refused to accept responsibility. The Government have consistently refused to provide those people with a proper package of assistance. All that they have is the failing financial assistance scheme.

Some 10,000 people should be eligible for help from the FAS now, with an additional 115,000 or so people becoming eligible once they reach the age of 65. But so far the FAS has made payments to only around 1,300 people, and this matter should be in a prominent position in the Secretary of State’s in-tray. The scheme has cost some £10 million to administer so far, but it has paid out only £4.9 million to the pensioners affected, and that is a scandalous failure. It is totally unacceptable. The scheme must do much better, and quickly. The money is not yet getting to those who need it.

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The scheme chose to publish its most recent annual report, showing up this failure, last Wednesday, the day that the Chancellor became the Prime Minister—giving rise to more suspicions about burying bad news, one of the Government’s more persistent traits.

We have put forward constructive proposals to top up those people’s pensions to Pension Protection Fund level without long-term public expenditure implications. Those proposals have support on both sides of the House and were passed in the other place last month as new clauses tabled to the Pensions Bill. The first test for the new Prime Minister and the new Secretary of State is whether they have the decency to acknowledge that those people need a better solution. Will the Secretary of State now give his support to those amendments? Will he give those 125,000 people the good news that they have been waiting for?

There is another big pensions issue in the Secretary of State’s in-tray. The gold-plated retirement promises made to millions of Britain’s public sector workers have incurred, depending on whether one believes the Government or independent actuaries, liabilities of somewhere between £530 billion and £1 trillion, which is a staggering amount of money. The Government still will not disclose what the liabilities were at March last year, and the figures are now three months late. The new Prime Minister has claimed to usher in a new era of transparent Government, but he is not even willing to publish such an important figure. As usual, what he says and what he does are miles apart.

Of course, public sector workers are entitled to fair treatment, and many perform vital roles under extremely difficult circumstances.

Tom Levitt: On occupational pensions, the hon. Gentleman discussed topping up the Pension Protection Fund level. Does he agree with his immediate predecessor, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who told members of the Turner and Newall fund in my constituency 10 days ago that it is important to have an alternative to the PPF—in other words, a better deal than the PPF? Is that Conservative policy?

Chris Grayling: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman sympathises with that aspiration. We want to make sure that the people who have lost out as a result of pension collapses do not lose out indefinitely. We will continue to push proposals that give those people a better deal. It is to the discredit of this House that the Government still refuse to accept changes that command support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. When the proposal returns to the House next week or the week after, I hope that we will see a change in Government policy.

The Secretary of State knows that we must all share the burden of demographic change, and it is the Government’s duty to the taxpayer to ensure that the costs of public service pension provision are transparent. The cost of unfunded final salary benefits, with retirement at 60 for many, indexation and a lump sum allowance plus generous ill-health and death benefits for millions of public sector workers have created a gaping black hole in public funds, which will ultimately have to be filled by the taxpayer, which is one of the great challenges facing the new Secretary of State. It is an issue that the Prime Minister conspicuously failed to tackle throughout his time as
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Chancellor. Whenever problems were around, the former Chancellor was nowhere to be found. Now that he is Prime Minister, that will have to change.

We have heard much in the past few days about how the Prime Minister is trying, rather improbably, to be the change that Britain needs. That claim will ring pretty hollow among current and future pensioners whose retirement has been jeopardised by the misjudgements of the new occupant of No. 10 Downing street. Today, 125,000 of the worst affected pensioners are still waiting for a pensions lifeboat, and millions of others face a retirement in which money will be a constant struggle. The repair job will take a long time, and it will take cross-party consensus and the continued help of some of Britain’s best financial minds. However, none of that work should provide a smokescreen from the finger of blame, which last Wednesday moved from No. 11 to No. 10 Downing street.

8.13 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move,

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform for the vision that he brought to the post that I now have the privilege to hold.

I welcome the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to his place. He has made an assured first speech after a day’s preparation or less than that, and I congratulate him on his appointment. Although I welcome his promises to be constructive and to seek consensus, I am disappointed that he treated us to nearly half an hour of rhetoric and a certain obsession with the Prime Minister. By the way, the Prime Minister has leapt above the leader of the Conservative party in the popularity stakes, and the Labour party is now ahead of the Tory party, which has held a poll lead for the past year. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is right to be obsessed by the Prime Minister—if I were sitting in his seat, I would be obsessed by the success of the new Prime Minister in taking over from the most successful Prime Minister that the Labour Party has ever had.

My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) pointed out that the hon. Gentleman did not make a commitment to reverse the dividend tax credit change, which he and his predecessor have consistently castigated. The Opposition have had 10 years and two general elections to commit themselves
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to reversing the changes that we made. They could have done that today, so why did they not do so? The truth is that the Tories were responsible for beginning those changes. In fact, the leader of the Opposition was the adviser to Lord Lamont on the fifth occasion when they cut the dividend tax credit.

In 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1993 the Tories made successive reductions in the rate of dividend tax credit from 30 per cent. to 20 per cent., and in 1996 they took away payable tax credits on some share buy-backs that happened to exploit the distortion caused by those credits. Unlike our changes, and contrary to what the hon. Gentleman has said—I am sorry to correct him on his first day—those reductions were not offset by cuts in corporation tax. When we made our change, we cut corporation tax by 2p, and when corporation tax is cut, companies are, of course, more profitable, which means that they can pay more in employer contributions to pension funds, their dividends rise and they can pay more dividends to pension funds. The reality is that the system of payable tax credits before 1997 represented a serious distortion in the tax system, encouraging companies to pay out their profits as dividends rather than retaining them for reinvestment in the business.

Sir John Butterfill: It was not companies but charities that suffered most. The charitable bodies that relied on being able to reclaim the tax credit were the ones that suffered, and they did not benefit from the reductions in corporation tax, so the impact on charitable institutions up and down this country was immense.

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, charities received compensation for five years after the change was made, so I do not agree with his assertion on the matter.

The change encouraged reinvestment in the business and therefore the potential for stronger pension funds. As was said at the time, the tax credit system

Those are the words of the then Conservative Chancellor, Norman Lamont, in his 1993 Budget speech. Even the Conservatives recognised that the dividend tax credit caused distortions, which is why they started cutting it, but now they are seeking to rewrite history.

Indeed, the last time the House debated the matter, the then shadow Work and Pensions Secretary sought to describe the actions of the previous Tory Government not as “cuts” to the dividend tax credit, but as “adjustments”. The Conservatives supported the policy when they were implementing it, but not when we continued it. As my new hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) so eloquently put it in his resignation letter of 27 June:

PR is public relations, not proportional representation. There is no issue on which that point is more evident than pensions.

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Mr. Drew: I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. He will have heard my earlier intervention on the impact of pensions holidays on those companies that subsequently became eligible for the financial assistance scheme, and it would be very useful if the Government were to publish that information. The Opposition spokesman did not mention a point of paramount importance—the use of early retirement in the ’80s and ’90s. In that period, early retirement was often compulsory in both the public sector and the private sector. It was a way of getting people off full-time employment, and it did immense damage. Rising expectations and longer life expectancies have resulted in that trend having a lasting impact, and I wonder whether the Government should examine the implications.

Mr. Hain: I very much agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for his welcome. I want to address those matters in a few minutes’ time.

Chris Grayling: In the documents that were eventually obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, it says:

Why did the Government fail to tell people at the time that this policy would lead to lower retirement income?

Mr. Hain: As I will explain in a minute, that is simply not the case, and the evidence bears that out.

Forgetting the shameless opportunism of the Conservatives in attacking a policy that they themselves launched, let us look instead at the way in which our corporation tax reforms have improved the climate for investment and the competitiveness of United Kingdom businesses—an approach that has delivered, over 10 years, the longest unbroken period of economic growth on record, the best combination of unemployment and inflation in the G7, instead of one of the worst when the Conservatives were in power, and an end to the years of economic instability that for so long had hampered the performance of UK business.

The tax reforms announced in the 1997 Budget took place against the background of a strongly performing stock market and with about three quarters of pension funds in surplus, with total surpluses amounting to about £50 billion. Between 1993 and 1996, pension scheme assets had increased by 13 per cent. and total contributions by 12.5 per cent. If the tax changes were to have had the devastating effect claimed by the Opposition, one would have expected to see the situation deteriorate in the following years after those changes were brought in, but, until the global stock market fell at the end of the decade, that was simply not the case. In the years after the abolition of the dividend tax credit, pension scheme assets did not increase by the 13 per cent. by which they had in the previous three years under the Tories—they increased by four times as much, by 50 per cent. Total contributions increased by 18 per cent. and total pension income increased by a further 15 per cent. By 2006, even after the shock of the stock market crash, pension fund assets were more than £1 trillion. In fact, pension fund assets have doubled during the period of this Labour Government. What actually happened after our package of corporation tax changes was that companies paid more in employer contributions,
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dividends rose, assets rose, and payments to pension funds rose from £34 billion in 1996 to £39 billion in 1999, and by 2006 the figure of £71.3 billion was twice as much as it was under the Tories in 1996.

The problems that occurred in the new century were due to the stock market downturn, not to the tax change, which was minuscule compared with pension fund turnover. As the respected economics commentator, Anatole Kaletsky, wrote in The Times earlier this year,

Others agreed. Take, for example, one of the Opposition’s own leading experts, whom the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell will doubtless soon consult—Stephen Yeo. He said that it was

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