Previous Section Index Home Page

The last time that I stood here and spoke on this subject, my constituent Peter Humphreys was in intensive care in Hemel Hempstead hospital. His wife was by his bedside, and I stood here waiting for a text message to find out how he was. Today, in Parliament square, Peter demonstrated with the rest of the pensioner action group, and I am sure that he will be watching me from somewhere at this moment. He is well, and he is getting better. All that he and his family care about is the
17 July 2007 : Column 223
campaign for justice for the pensioners who have had their life savings, their future and their children’s future stolen from them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) referred to a lady called Marlene Cheshire, and I am sure that she too is watching me from somewhere. Her husband, David, did not make it. He died while he was waiting for money to come through from the scheme. As I have said in the House before, Marlene told David on his death-bed that she would get the money, and she has now just about got some money through.

We have heard about the scale of the problem this evening. We are talking about 125,000 people, along with their loved ones and families, who have been affected by this terrible occurrence. These are not rich people and they are not asking the state for more because they have not contributed. These are ordinary working people, who did the honourable and right thing that they were told to do—they paid into a safe scheme, and they were told by the Government of the day that the scheme was safe. The Government of the day was my Conservative Government and promises were made subsequently by later Governments.

It is sad to see how Government Members have got into a party political spat. Frankly, that was not necessary. We all know what is right and wrong and accusing hon. Members of jumping on to bandwagons or trying to gain political profit from this affair is, quite frankly, sick. As I say, we all know what is right and wrong here. I was approached by my Dexion group long before I became MP for my area. I read its file—a deep and long one—and its members tested me out, as I have said before, as to whether I had or had not read it. Their case, like many others, was cut and dry. They had gone into a scheme in good faith and paid into it.

On four occasions, the Government have been found guilty in respect of those pensioners. There is no argument about that. That is what the parliamentary ombudsman is for. Frankly, if the parliamentary ombudsman is not willing to stand up to Government—any Government—we should not have one. What is the point of having a parliamentary ombudsman if we cannot take cases to him as MPs when we believe that something has gone wrong? If any Government of any description can turn around and say, “We do not like that; we are going to be judge and jury on the matter”, what would be the point of having a parliamentary ombudsman at all?

Here we are today, after the Government have been dragged through the courts, kicking and screaming about different schemes at different times. I suspect that it is all about trying to get a few more of their Back Benchers not to vote with the Opposition on the amendments. I hope and pray that many of their Back Benchers are tucked away somewhere where the Whips cannot get at them. I really hope so, because this great House must show that it cares about people’s lives and futures. It must know the moral position—what is right and wrong. If we do not follow the moral course, the House will be denigrated this evening. We must do what is right for our constituents.

As we have already heard, we are talking about only a tiny amount of money in the big scheme of things. I have people telling me at my surgeries every week that
17 July 2007 : Column 224
they have been paid thousands of pounds too much through child tax credit or working tax credit—or Uncle Tom Cobleigh’s credit, frankly. There is money flying about all over the show, particularly within this particular Department, which has a huge financial base. Money is being lost and costs cannot be agreed, but we are talking about people’s lives and only a small amount of money.

I say to hon. Members that tomorrow morning they will have to look in the mirror and stare at someone who voted in a certain way tonight. Can we in all conscience not support these people so that they get the help that they need today? Let us argue about where the money comes from and broaden Young’s remit to look into other sources such as banking assets. It is ludicrous to have such a narrow remit that focuses only on the insurance side of the problem. Let us put that to one side and give these people the help that they need today. If the amount of money that Young talks about is available, we may not need to use the guarantee of a loan from the Government—just as Maxwell pensioners did not have to. The money was there, should it have been needed. Let us stand up for people tonight in a moral and ethical way. I hope that all Members will believe that that is the right way to proceed and will support the Lords amendments. I congratulate their lordships on what they are doing.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I had hoped that the Government would bring this sad series of events to an end this evening by making a real commitment to the pensioners. I am disappointed that, so far, that has not happened. I accept that progress has been made and I welcome what my right hon. Friend said today. We are creeping nearer to the 90 per cent. figure, but as many hon. Members have said this evening, what does it actually mean? We have heard about other benefits related to the Pension Protection Fund. I cannot understand why the Government will not go that extra step and make a proper commitment.

It was five years ago that Allied Steel and Wire went into receivership in Cardiff, so this saga has been going on for five long years, during which time I and other hon. Members have had people coming back and forth to our constituency surgeries, saying time and again that they expected a Labour Government to sort the problem out. I feel that the Government have made some efforts and achieved some progress, but they have not gone as far as they should.

Many people have campaigned long and hard on this issue and I know that many will be disappointed that the Government will not finally settle it today. We must pay tribute to the pensioners themselves and to the unions, particularly to Community and Amicus, which took the case to the European Court of Justice in the interest of its members in January 2006. The ruling said that the pension rules were inadequate in protecting the expected pensions of members of occupational pension schemes in the event of their employers becoming insolvent. If those rules had been implemented adequately, none of this would have happened. I still hope that we can settle the issue, but time is certainly running out. It is time that we did the right thing by all those affected—and some of the Lords amendments would achieve that, though I did not wish to reach the position where I felt I would have to support some of their amendments against the Government.

17 July 2007 : Column 225

What guides me at this particular moment is the experience of my constituents in Cardiff, North, particularly ex-employees of Allied Steel and Wire. What they have told me has driven me to campaign for justice for those workers. I have seen for myself just what hardship the loss of their pensions has caused. We have all heard first hand just how hard it was for people to learn that they were going to lose first their jobs and then their pensions, despite having paid into an occupational pension scheme—often for decades and on the advice of the Government.

Many of those people worked in the hard environment of the steel industry for all their lives and many have told me about the devastating impact of these events. One man put it very bluntly when he said, “I face a bleak retirement”, yet he had paid into a pension scheme for more than 20 years. Some people have never been able to talk about what happened to them. I have mentioned before that one man’s wife told me that since this happened, he had been unable to say a word about it because the trauma was so great. Some members have died not knowing how much loved ones will have to live on. I do not feel that that can be allowed to go on and on. The excruciatingly long time that it is taking to get justice for all those affected by the collapse of pension schemes has caused untold stress and strain and affected the physical, emotional and mental health of many pensioners and their families.

I welcome what the Minister has proposed tonight, but it still continues the uncertainty. We still do not know what extra percentage will result from the proposals in the Young review. We still do not know how much the final figure will be when the Government match that percentage. My constituents tell me that the stress and uncertainty have gone on far too long and they urge us to bring this sad, appalling and morally wrong situation to a satisfactory conclusion.

The Young report offers some hope, but I fear that we still do not know what it will mean for those pensioners. If the Government offer no certainty today, I feel that I must consider voting in favour of any amendments that will result in payments at PPF levels for my constituents who are currently in receipt of FAS. I support the intention behind amendment No. 24, which is a simple amendment that aims to bring pensions up to PPF levels. I hope that we will have a separate vote on that amendment.

I am reflecting on the other amendments and support my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the esteemed Chair of the Public Administration Committee, when he said that it would have been preferable not to have gone down the route of loans and lifeboats. It would have been better to have had a straight commitment from the Government and then to have found as much as possible from the sources identified in the Young report. That might have reduced enormously how much public money had to be used. However, as my hon. Friend said, sometimes it is necessary to make a commitment to public money, and I believe that this is one of those occasions.

7.30 pm

I very much regret that we, as a Government, have reached this stage today. This is a marvellous Bill, which promises pensioners a much better future and recognises the issue of women’s involvement in pensions in a way
17 July 2007 : Column 226
in which it has not been recognised before. I would support it wholeheartedly were it not for the problems that we are discussing, and I am very disappointed that the Government have not reached a firmer conclusion. Unless the Minister says anything more definite, however, I shall vote for certainty and a better deal for my constituents.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who echoed what had been said by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). We are no clearer about what the Government are proposing; it seems to be a bit more smoke and mirrors and a bit more jam tomorrow.

There was some laughter earlier, but I do not think any of us can really imagine what it is like to lose a pension after 30 years of saving. Many of those involved in this scheme were ordinary hard-working people, who did not expect riches in later life but certainly expected to avoid the poverty trap into which many on state pensions had fallen. They are not feckless spendthrifts waiting to be bailed out. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, many went without during their working lives for the sake of the contingency fund that they thought they were setting up, not just for themselves but for their wives and families.

It was Government advice that those people were following. It is not as if they suddenly decided that some snake oil salesman had come up with a good idea; they were persuaded by the argument that this was the right thing to do. At £87.30, the state pension is hardly a king’s ransom. It is no wonder that many of our hard-working constituents hoped to avoid the possibility of not being able to lead the life that they were expecting, with happiness and a degree of comfort in their old age.

My postbag, like that of others who are present, reflects the views of those who feel that they have been sadly deceived and face an impoverished old age. We must step in tonight, rather than delaying for the sake of the promise of some future benefit that is undefined. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) pressed the Minister for figures, he made some party political points that I think did a disservice to the House and to our current argument, but we were given no firm figures. We may not have a perfect system to propose, but at least we are offering a degree of security that was not forthcoming from the Government.

I believe that, as Members of Parliament, we are considered to be honourable, and that is a badge that we all like to wear. But my constituents who have been caught up in the Dexion pension crash may be watching the debate today, perhaps from somewhere closer than some of us may care to think, and they will draw their own conclusions if we do not seize the chance to right what Members on both sides of the House acknowledge to be a terrible wrong. This is not cheap party political posturing because some by-election is taking place somewhere; we are dealing with a long-standing complaint, recognised by Committees that were heavily Labour-dominated. I firmly reject the idea that what is being said tonight is intended merely to win a by-election.

17 July 2007 : Column 227

As we have heard, the collapse of the Dexion pension scheme is not an isolated case, but it is a salutary tale which, like others, has prompted calls for action by Government. In 2006, a Select Committee said that the Government were focusing their energy on the findings of maladministration rather than considering the remedies. We have a remedy tonight.

The fact that the Government were not considering the remedies was seen to add to the distress of the people caught up in this mess—for it is a mess. A constituent of mine, Mr. Mike Chapman, is a former Dexion employee, and he and his family believe that the Government are dragging their heels. Although we have heard of similar cases tonight, Mike’s case typifies the enormity of the personal crisis that faces people. In May 2003, 180 Dexion staff were caught up in that crisis.

There should not have been a problem. Those people thought that they were in a secure pension scheme. In fact, their contract insisted that they join a pension scheme. Mike was in the scheme, and having paid the additional voluntary contributions for more than 20 years, he rightly expected a relatively comfortable old age for himself and his family. But, as we have heard, the Dexion pension fund, like others, did not have enough money in the pot to meet the obligations. What is more, work forces and their pension funds are near the bottom of the pecking order when a failed company’s creditors are ranked. A valuation of the Dexion pension fund showed a £20 million shortfall, which was disastrous for the employees.

At 64, my constituent Mike Chapman was within a fortnight of retirement. Can Members imagine that being snatched away from them within a fortnight of retirement? When Dexion—a firm that manufactured shelving—went into administration, it left a gaping hole in its pension scheme. Mike Chapman tells me that rather than gaining a pension of more than £1,200 a month, he and others like him will receive nothing. He is too young to qualify for the financial assistance scheme.

In the four years since Dexion’s collapse, Mike and his wife Valerie have lived on their savings. They had saved, fortunately: like many others involved in pension schemes, they are a prudent couple. They have had to try to make ends meet by working in odd jobs. They have even worked as medical research guinea pigs to generate some income. Earlier today we talked of equality for women, but I can tell Members that for an older person, seeking employment to supplement one’s income is not an easy option. It is not open to many people to seek gainful employment.

Being a sensible man, Mike had followed the Government’s advice to the letter, and he has paid the price for doing so. As we have heard today, people were positively encouraged to act as he did. Mike paid in thousands of pounds of his own money because the Government and his employers told him to do so. He was promised that he would be safe and would receive a generous settlement, but that did not happen.

Shockingly, Mike and others discovered the hard way that final salary schemes were not worth the paper they were written on; they were only as good as the employers running them. I want to quote Mike’s words, and those
17 July 2007 : Column 228
of others caught up in the scheme. I think that Labour Members who do not share our passionate feelings— [Interruption.] I refer to some Labour Members. Many have expressed the same wishes as us today, but unfortunately those on the Front Bench have not done the same. [Interruption.] I am sure that Labour Members want to hear Mike’s words rather than shouting them down. He said:

The wife of a Dexion victim said:

—this was before the arrival of our new Prime Minister—

—not next year, but now—

Tonight the Government have a chance to listen to that lady, and to other people such as Mike. Mike is a former marketing manager. He lives in St Albans. He does not expect a quick U-turn, but Members can support him tonight.

Following articles in the media about the plight of Mike and other Dexion workers, they posted their comments on a website. Many drew attention to the moral dimension of the Government’s apparent contempt for the public—that is how the Government are regarded: with contempt. They feel that they have been let down, and they speak eloquently of their experiences. I shall end by quoting comments that reflect the views of the many despairing victims from whom I am sure we have all heard at our constituency surgeries. This is what they tell us:

—on the website, that is—

Those are not my words, but the words of people who have nothing as a result of the Government’s actions. They accuse all of us collectively—all hon. Members—of letting them down. Tonight we have a chance to show them that their comments may be misplaced, and that we can redress what has been done.

Next Section Index Home Page