Pensions Bill

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Danny Alexander: I, too, heard the comments on the “Money Box” programme that the hon. Gentleman has read out. Being, no doubt, as keen a listener as him—I am sure that all members of the Committee are regular listeners to that programme—I was perplexed and concerned by Mr. Jones’s comments. In due course, Mr. Jones corrected those comments. Perhaps he did not do so as quickly as Admiral West, but it had happened when he gave evidence to this Committee.
1.15 pm
Tim Jones is someone with a huge amount of professional skill and is held in the highest esteem and respect by those people he previously worked with, and so the amendment being debated should not be seen in any way as casting doubt on the competence of Mr. Jones and his team at PADA. The question is, if there were doubts in his mind—and he, no doubt, has discussed these with the Minister, and the Minister has reassured him, no doubt, about the deliverability of the timetable—then it is important that the Minister shares the pressures that may exist in terms of meeting quite a tight timescale.
As I understand it, there are a number of steps that need to be completed over that four-year period in order to ensure that the personal accounts scheme can be up and running. The contracting process for the administrative software and people to actually run the administration of the account, because it is quite naturally subject to European Union rules—we return to those and, no doubt, will return to the European Union again at some point—about public procurement. This is a process that—I understand from the procurement side of this—will take at least 14 months, and possibly longer, before that commissioning is completed. I guess, probably quite naturally, that commissioning process cannot start until this Bill has become law.
So there is a situation where, in an unknown period, this Bill will become law—I guess the Minister is hoping for May or June, when it has completed its passage in both houses. There is a period of slightly less than four years, in which that commissioning process has to be undertaken successfully, the team to put it in place has to be recruited and so on—which will take a bit of time—and then there obviously has to be appropriate testing to ensure that the system works perfectly before the start date of the scheme.
There are clearly some significant practical hurdles and tight deadlines that have to be kept to along the way to ensure the target date of 1 April 2012 is met. It seems to be me to be quite right that it should be met but, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) has quite rightly said, only one thing would be worse than missing the deadline, and that would be a botched launch.
Mr. O'Brien: It is important to get personal accounts right—that includes to deliver it on time—but a prudent manager will recognise that events are something, as Harold Macmillan mentioned, that are not always in the control of those who would wish to have them under control. The policy intention is that the personal accounts should be delivered in 2012, and nothing we are aware of at this point would prevent that from happening. That has not changed. I had not tied myself down to April of 2012, but it does seem to be a reasonable date as a target to launch it on. But it may well be that for other reasons there are other times of the year that might be more appropriate. But as far as we are concerned, there is nothing we know that would prevent a 2012 launch.
So that is what we are aiming at; that is what we expect to hit, and Tim Jones has been brought from the private sector in order to ensure that we have a senior executive who is able to deliver a project of this kind on time, on budget, and to enable it to create the mechanisms to deliver personal accounts, bearing in mind that PADA itself will not deliver personal accounts. I can give that reassurance.
Tim Jones has a background which has not involved having to weather the uncertain waters of politics, or politicians’ ability to salami-slice words—or, indeed, journalists’ encouragement of what appear to be innocuous comments which are then repeatedly referred to in Parliament. I agree that Paul Lewis is an estimable journalist who does indeed know how to do an interview and get a story, as he did on this occasion. Tim Jones has, however, assured me that he knows of nothing that would stop him from delivering in 2012, and he fully intends to see that that happens. I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentlemen on that point.
The reason I do not want the amendment in the Bill is that we have not fixed on 1 April 2012 as a precise date. That is a reasonable target date for the moment, but it may be better, for all sorts of reasons, including presentation of better dates, to move it a month or two one way or the other. We are still targeting 2012. That is when we expect to deliver, but I do not want to enshrine that in the Bill. Primary legislation is not the place to set out precise dates for implementation of reforms. It is the place to set out the principles of a reform and the approach to reform, and it is only sensible to retain some flexibility in the start date. Who knows what might happen over the next four years, or how the pensions landscape may change?
Danny Alexander: I just want to press the Minister on one point to do with the timeline. While I can see his point about not being ready at a particular date, I want to be reassured that he has looked at the public procurement timelines that are involved in this process and is satisfied, given all the legal restrictions on public procurement contracts of this size, that the process can be completed, implemented and tested in good time for a 2012 launch.
Mr. O'Brien: We know of nothing which would prevent the public procurement timetables from being met within the time scale we are seeking. We do have four years, and that gives us enough time to go through delivery. I have seen how Government procurement—of computer systems and other things—has not in the past always been completed on time. That is also the case in the private sector. I cannot provide a cast-iron guarantee that every independent private company that has a contract is going to be able to do its job perfectly, and therefore it is useful to retain some flexibility.
At the same time, I do not expect them to fail to deliver on the contracts; if we expected that, we would not be signing them up. We expect that those who make arrangements to deliver personal accounts will be able to deliver on their contracts. The time scales are not so tight that they do not have some built-in flexibility, and we should therefore be in good time to be able to deliver this project.
Mr. Waterson: I am sorry to say that I am not at all reassured by that answer. First of all, the suggestion that it could even be December 2012, and not necessarily April. I agree with the Minister that April is the logical time to start, because it chimes with the tax and accounting years, and so on. Although Paul Lewis is a prince in his profession, I take the Minister’s point about journalists. I think the Minister’s point about Tim Jones’ comments to Paul Lewis got it the wrong way round. It is because he is not a politician that he does not have that natural guile to try to disguise the reality. That is the point.
There are two things we do know for sure, unless the Minister has something up his sleeve. One is that between now and 2012 there will be an election and a new Government—hopefully a Conservative one—and almost certainly a new Minister in charge. Because we have our ambitions to win that election, I take the Minister’s point that a new Minister would have the same concerns about putting a start date on the face of the legislation. I have a sneaking suspicion that some poor devil—it could even be me—arrives on day one after the election as the Pensions Minister and very near the top of his in-tray will be a report from PADA saying we cannot possibly do this by 2012 and these are the reasons.
I think it is time we nailed this down because I have reached the age where I do not like surprises. Let me offer a deal to the Minister. I am prepared not to press this amendment to a Division if the Minister will agree to share with us—and we do have a legitimate interest as the official Opposition—the results of the review that Mr. Jones is conducting. That seems fair. If he wants to suggest doing it on Privy Council terms, I would not object. I do not know what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey thinks.
Danny Alexander: The suggestion made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne is wholly sensible. If there is a review being undertaken it should be shared with spokespeople for the opposition parties or on whatever basis the Minister thinks is appropriate. This is a critical issue and if there are problems to be identified by PADA I think we, too, ought to know about them.
Mr. O'Brien: It is a matter for the hon. Gentleman whether he presses this to a Division or not but as I understand it there is not going to be a report to publish or share. What the hon. Member has already done, I understand, is talk to Tim Jones. I would be very happy for him to go and discuss these issues with Tim Jones and Paul Myners. That invitation extends to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. The hon. Members are able to discuss these issues with the managers of PADA, on the basis that any commercially confidential information will be kept confidential. I am not aware of any final report or anything that I am able to share, so I am not in a position to do so.
What there will be is an ongoing process of Tim Jones looking at delivery projections, devising plans for delivery, ensuring that timescales are met and, in due course, revising those timescales and plans to meet managerial issues that normally arise in the development of a project of this kind. Throughout that process, on the basis of consensus, I am very happy that either hon. Member can engage with PADA. Indeed, I know Tim Jones and Paul Myners would welcome that degree of interest from our leading politicians who have shared the process of creating PADA and personal accounts. I hope that provides sufficient reassurance. I fear I cannot go further than that. I hope he can withdraw his amendment but that is a matter for him.
1.30 pm
Mr. Waterson: I am not sure that takes me a lot further. Let me explain why. Yes, we have already had some discussions with Tim Jones and Paul Myners and have every intention, as do they, of continuing those discussions. It is sensible from both their points of view, as well as ours, that in a massive undertaking like this, which in anyone’s view is going to straddle another general election, the Government and the official Opposition should both be in the loop about what is going on. I was not suggesting that Mr. Jones is going to produce a report of the sort that might be put in the Library of the House of Commons.
However, unless he is doing the review on the back of a fag packet, I assume that he is going to produce some internal conclusions and I assume that he is going to share them with Minister, perhaps just in the form of a two page letter. Even a one-paragraph letter that says, “Not on your life mate, there is no way we can deliver this by 2012, you’ll be lucky to get it by 2015”, would be worrying enough. All I am saying is that the Minister should share that with us as part of the consensus process. Unless the minister can give us that undertaking, I will seek to press this to a division. I do not know if that finds favour with the Liberals as well, but that is my intention. Clearly nobody has a review without coming up with some conclusions, and the results of the review ought to be shared with us. We ought to know anything that the Minister knows.
Mr. O'Brien: I am not unhappy that the hon. Member for Eastbourne should know broadly what is going on. I cannot understand quite why he thinks that he is not going to be told the conclusions by Tim Jones. We have ongoing project management. There will be things on paper that Tim Jones works to and there will be plans and proposals that he will have negotiated with the board. I do not know of any reason why he should not share those with the hon. Gentleman. The best approach would be for him to go and talk to Tim Jones about how best he would want to do that. I am not prepared to take it any further than that. There is no wish on our part to be other than appropriately commercially confidential. I have no great problem with sharing basic commercial issues with either the hon. Member for Eastbourne or the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey providing that they are kept confidential. I have made that clear and I think that that should be enough. It is a matter for him whether he wishes to press it to a vote.
Mr. Waterson: I do not want to labour the point—there may be a feeling that I already have—but I have one final thought. I entirely take the point about commercially sensitive information; there is no way that I want or need to have access to that stuff, nor I suspect does the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. If the result of the review is a conclusion by Tim Jones, whose judgment and experience I totally respect, that this cannot be delivered on time, I want to know almost as soon as the Minister knows. That is what it boils down to and that is probably why we will have a division on the amendment.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 8.
Division No. 2]
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Selous, Andrew
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Ainger, Nick
Banks, Gordon
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Butler, Ms Dawn
David, Mr. Wayne
Flello, Mr. Robert
Keen, Alan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Question accordingly negatived.
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