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22 Apr 2008 : Column 1281

As the Secretary of State said, this is the final part of the implementation of the recommendations of the Turner report. Therefore, it is important to look at the two sets of measures together. This is a complicated Bill; there is a lot in it, and there is a lot of work still to do. As an Opposition, we have tried from the start to maintain the consensus, but to raise issues where we feel that there is a need for more information, more work or greater transparency.

As the Minister for Pensions Reform knows, we still have several concerns and want work to be done on certain areas. Mention has been made of means-testing; I referred earlier to the Government’s difficulties with the 10p tax rate, and we do not want that to be repeated in terms of means-testing. This is a groundbreaking reform that will ensure that many low and middle-income people save properly for their pension. It would be tragic if they were to get their pension and then lose it because the benefits system was not flexible enough. Again, we wait to see what the outcome of the review will be, and we hope that the Government will address this matter. I know that my colleagues in the other place will also be looking at this, and will perhaps be subjecting the matter to further scrutiny.

We have raised the issue of generic advice and our concerns about the level of it. The Thoresen review has dealt with some of those matters, but we nevertheless again give notice that we have issues and concerns. We are disappointed that the Minister is only now having a consultation about the open-market option, because we share the view of much of the pensions industry that that should, and could, by now be in the Bill, and that it would have been a useful tool that could have benefited many people.

We are disappointed with the fact that although the Minister can filibuster about the United Nations ethical principles, the Government have done little to implement them. This is not just for readers of The Guardian; this is about ensuring that investing ethically benefits pensioners as well as those who receive the investment. Nevertheless, the Bill is important and will benefit many people. If it ensures that pensioners have a decent income, that is to be welcomed.

Finally, I am disappointed that the Government have failed, in the centenary of the introduction of the old- age pension, to say categorically that they will reintroduce, from next year or whenever, the link with earnings. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) quoted the Chancellor’s statement that many pensioners who are entitled to pension credits do not claim them. We want pensioners to have a guaranteed income, and all the issues about means-testing would be much better for that. Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill, which is a step in the right direction. I look forward to my noble Friends in the other place tabling amendments that we can perhaps consider on another date.

9.51 pm

Mike Penning: It is an adage that if you sit here long enough, you will get your time. I am about to get more time than the Front-Bench spokespeople, which is fantastic news. As I mentioned, I came in for Prayers this morning. I have sat here throughout not only because this is a very important debate, but because the financial assistance scheme was not covered on Report and so I could not talk about it much then—I now have ample opportunity to do so.


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I have made many speeches in this House before this Secretary of State and Minister of State—the Minister for Pensions Reform—as well as before previous Ministers of State, calling for justice for the 125,000 pensioners whose pensions were stolen from them when their occupational schemes were wound up. I shall repeat again that more than 700 such people come from my constituency. I was ever so pleased when, after five years of campaigning by many hon. Members across this House, we thought we had reached the conclusion and we thought that those people would receive their compensation. We all fought for 90 per cent., and that is what they will get through the financial assistance scheme.

I told my pensioners at our public meeting in my constituency on the Saturday when many members of the team who have been working with the Government Front-Bench team on the issue were present—people such as Peter and Jacquie Humphrey, Dave Allen and Ros Altmann—that we must examine the small print. I am worried not by the Front-Bench team who are present, but by their paymasters in the Treasury, who have always worried me and who have frankly been holding this back for many years.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has promised to write to me about the two points I raised in my intervention. Perhaps he would be kind enough to write to me about a couple of others, too. The first relates to pensioners who should have been getting their pension but who had to receive benefits because the FAS has not paid out. Will the Government guarantee—will the Secretary of State guarantee this to me in writing, if necessary—that benefits paid to pensioners in schemes while they have been waiting will not be claimed back? It seems obvious that they would not be, but successive Governments have often claimed back moneys paid in benefits when people have received compensation. That often happens in respect of injury compensation where people have been on income support. [Interruption.] I am sorry that Members on the Government Front Bench are not willing to listen to a debate in which some of us have participated for seven hours, but if they could bear with us for a few more minutes, they would then be able to go off to the bar and have a laugh. This is a serious matter. Many people are worried about whether they will have to pay back the benefits. There is a track record of that happening, and I seek assurances from the Government that that will not happen to these pensioners.

The other issue—I am grateful that the Secretary of State agreed to meet with me about it—is the situation of those who have lost their loved ones while waiting for the compensation to come through. My constituent Dave Cheshire died about two and half years ago and his widow, Marlene Cheshire, does not know what will happen. If the claimants had still been alive, they would receive the full compensation package, but their widows may be in a difficult situation. When the Secretary of State was the Minister of State, he met a delegation of widows from all over the country and he promised to look at the situation then, but it is still a big issue now and of grave concern.

The other, linked issue is that of claimants who have lost their income while they have been waiting for compensation because they have been unable to work due to sickness. I wrote to the Secretary of State about that recently, because some of my constituents are
22 Apr 2008 : Column 1283
worried about how much money they will get from the scheme. They want to know whether they can enter the scheme early because they are disabled. It is a technical point, but it is important. If they are not available for work because they are disabled, can they enter the scheme early or do they have to wait for the full version?

I apologise for bringing those points up at such a late stage, but they are vitally important for the pensioners who are likely to get money from the FAS. They need to know the details so that they can plan their future.

All of the great work that has been done on the Bill and the consensus that the Government have reached with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is important, but it will be a waste of time unless the public have trust in pensions. The Secretary of State mentioned 12 million people who could join the scheme, but they will not go anywhere near it if they do not have any trust in it. I have been canvassing in the London elections and it is an issue on the doorstep. People are concerned about their futures and whether they can trust anybody with their pension schemes, especially with the banks and the current credit squeeze.

Many people who lost trust in traditional pension schemes, especially when the occupational schemes started to be wound up, looked to investment in property. A crisis is happening there, alongside the crisis of confidence in the pension scheme. In the eloquent words of Ros Altmann, who was a Government adviser before she helped the occupational pension scheme groups, we have a pension crisis today that could well become a pensioner crisis tomorrow, unless we address the issue of confidence in the pension system.

It is up to the Government to be the driving force. They have been the driving force on this issue, but—as Conservative Front Benchers have said today—we have heard it all before from both Labour and Conservative Governments. They have claimed that whatever they are proposing is the panacea to the pension problem and will mean that more people will have a decent pension. However, even if this scheme works, we will not solve the problem unless we address the issue of means-testing.

Earlier on, we heard of the millions of people whom the actuaries assumed would not take up the means-tested benefits. The Minister of State said that he had written numerous times to those who had been pinpointed as the sort of people who should be getting pension credit. After writing a third or fourth time, the Government should take the hint: those people will never apply for pension credit. They see it as a handout and as taboo, and they would be ashamed to claim it. There is no other reason why they should fail to claim it, if the Government have written to them— [ Interruption. ] Ministers are googling away on the Government Front Bench, but if they had listened to the debate they would have heard about the thousands of pensioners who do not take up the pension credit because they see it as a stigma to do so. It is not because of the complicated forms; that is a certain area. It is not because they have not been informed enough; that is a certain area. There are whole areas of this country where pensioners will not take up the credit because they feel that they are going cap in hand. We should have a link to earnings, which should come forward now. If that happened, a lot
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more people would not be on means-tested benefit, and the savings would be coming across. All through the debate, from both sides of the House, including the Secretary of State’s Back Benchers—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

DELEGATED LEGISLATION

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),


Immigration

Mr. Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

D ivision deferred till tomorrow , pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).

adjournment (May)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

Question agreed to.

ADJOURNMENT (WHITSUN)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

Question agreed to.

Petitions

Policing

10.1 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): I was told by House officials that I am making history tonight by being the first UK Independence party politician to present a petition.

It is an honour to present this petition, which represents some 25,000 signatures from British people, many of them serving or ex-police officers. It is a petition about real policing. These people feel that politicians should butt out and enable the police to work to the public’s priorities without the imposition of politically set targets and the enormous bureaucracy and paperwork that diverts officers from making our streets safer. I congratulate the superb organiser of the petition, Mr. Hills, and every one of the 25,000 people who supported the national petition, which is very much in tune with my party’s principles and policies.

The petition states:


22 Apr 2008 : Column 1285

[P000173]

Post Office Closures (East Londonderry)

10.2 pm

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I rise to present a petition of some 51 sheets of signatures from constituents who are concerned about the possible closure and significant downscaling of services for sub-post offices in my constituency located at Burnfoot, Ardgarvan, Bolea, Feeney, Drumraighland and Millburn. Closure of those sub-post offices would have a severely detrimental effect on several thousand elderly and disabled people for whom their local post office is not just a focal point but a vital localised delivery mechanism for a range of services that should be expanded rather than curtailed, which is effectively what would happen even for those post offices that would suffer a downscaling.

The petition states:

Following is the full text of the petition:

[ The Petition of those concerned about the proposed closures of the Sub Post Offices, in the East Londonderry Constituency,

Declares that the importance of these Post Offices to the local community

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to instruct Post Office Ltd. to keep these Post Offices open

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]

[P000174]


22 Apr 2008 : Column 1286

Children’s Homes

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Liz Blackman.]

10.4 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I welcome the new Children and Young Persons Bill, which aims to reform the statutory framework for the care system and to ensure that children and young people receive high quality care and support. The Bill also aims to improve the outcomes for children in care compared with those of their peers and to improve placement stability. I want to focus tonight on a crucial tool for helping to improve outcomes for children in care and the quality of inspections of children’s homes. I have felt strongly about the importance of robust inspection for many years, ever since I was a social worker in the 1980s. In 1984, I introduced a ten-minute Bill to ensure that children’s homes of fewer than four children were properly registered, which they were not in those days.

There are about 6,500 children in children’s homes and hostels in England, which is 11 per cent. of the total number of children. The latest data show that those children tend to be older—14 per cent. are aged 10 to 15 years and 23 per cent. are 16 and over. Many of them have complex needs and display challenging behaviour. If we are to improve outcomes for them, it is all the more important that we have high quality care. We need rigorous inspections of children’s homes so that poorly run homes can be made to improve or close. It is only with a good care environment that young people will achieve better educational outcomes. Without the support of their corporate parents, that will not be possible. That means not only the social worker but the care home.

I welcome the measures in the Children and Young Persons Bill to enable registration authorities to issue compliance notices to children’s home providers who are failing to meet required standards, and to impose a notice preventing new admissions to an establishment where they are deemed inappropriate. That will make it easier to enforce minimum standards. In order to get to the stage of taking action against homes, however, we need more rigorous inspection regimes to be introduced. We have to ensure that children’s homes provide the standards of care necessary to improve outcomes for the children looked after.

All children’s homes are required to be registered under the Care Standards Act 2000. Ofsted is now responsible for the inspection of children’s homes, having taken over the role from the Commission for Social Care Inspection in April 2007. Children’s homes are subject to detailed statutory regulations and national minimum standards. The framework for inspection reports is the five outcomes in Every Child Matters, which formed the basis of the Children Act 2004. The five outcomes by which children’s homes are inspected are being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a contribution and achieving economic well-being. I believe that particularly in relation to children’s welfare and running away, some of the minimum care standards and how they translate to the five Every Child Matters outcomes are too general. That can lead to inspection reports that do not show the forensic detail that is needed.


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