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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 7 January 2014

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

Annuities for Pensioners

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)

9.30 am

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Today we are covering a subject that in many ways is both dull and important. “Annuity” is a difficult word, which lacks a simple definition, and it is not something that a man or woman under the age of 50 would wisely bring up in discussion with friends. However, 400,000 people this year will buy an annuity. That figure will grow substantially over the years, and anything that affects such a large percentage of our country’s population is therefore worthy of the first Westminster Hall debate in 2014. Annuities are dull, but important, and absolutely ripe for review and improvement. It is therefore timely that Mr Speaker has chosen the subject for the first Westminster Hall debate of the year, and it is a pleasure to participate in it under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

I will first outline annuities and their market as it is at the moment, who buys them, for whom they are best and least suited, and whether we need them, before looking at specific issues raised by recent investigations and considering what more might be done to improve the world of annuities. Historically, pension structures have required individuals to bring certainty to our savings, effectively by exchanging whatever pool of savings we have for known income, by drawing an annuity or by having income draw-down—two technical terms already, which are perhaps better described as “income for life”. That is what an annuity was designed to deliver, and it is derived from a complex calculation that involves bond yields, longevity and charges. In due course, I will return to discuss the last especially.

The concept of an annuity is relatively simple: to provide older people with the certainty of knowing what their income will be in an otherwise uncertain world of costs and, perhaps, care. In a world of defined-benefit pensions, we had such certainty, but that world—outside the public sector—is going fast, so certainty of income is a bigger issue than it was, and in today’s world many people are searching for it. We might therefore imagine that an annuity is the product for today. As auto-enrolment expands, reaching about 8 million new pension savers, net of opt-outs, the number of new annuity customers will surely grow. It will be a slow burn, because most of those auto-enrolling over the next few years will not reach annuity-type age for some decades, but eventually the figure used in the media—the number of annuity customers doubling—will be reached. As a result, instead of more than 1,000 new customers a day in 2014, before long there will be 2,000 new buyers of annuities every day.

The annuities market will therefore soon have 500,000 customers a year, predominantly in their 60s and 70s, making what for most will be the second most important

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financial decision of their life—the first being their home. As Ros Altmann has pointed out, as things stand with an annuity, unlike buying a home, there is no going back: someone buys it and that’s it—no change, no transfer, no flexibility and no equivalent of renting out, moving on, selling or downsizing. An annuity therefore best suits customers who know exactly what they are looking for—because they are well versed in the language of annuities, such as open-market options, enhanced annuities or comparisons with income draw-downs—and perhaps already have a defined benefit pension and are looking to convert a smaller defined contribution pot, which is a modest percentage of their total savings.

Such customers use the comparison tables of the office of the Pensions Advisory Service, provided by the Money Advice Service. They shop around for alternatives offered by online and household-name providers. They know that they will keep the same wife, husband or partner for ever, that they will live long enough for the income draw-down to exceed the capital exchanged and the commission charges, and that, ideally, both partners will exceed the lifespan expectations of their current health and the geography of where they live—alternatively, perhaps they will buy their annuity in a poor city and thereafter move to an idyllic village where people live longer. Such a customer should do well in the current world of annuities. Unfortunately, he or she is as exotic and rare as a sacred ibis on the banks of the river Severn in my constituency.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for the way in which he is presenting it. He rightly highlights the fact that the transaction is extremely complicated—that is exceptionally important—and he has used a range of phrases that are commonplace to financial advisers, but not necessarily understood by the clients. Does he accept that the retail distribution review, although perhaps painful in the short term, will deliver significant benefits over the longer term, but that the charging structure and the change in the culture might well put some people off seeking advice for annuities, thereby making this extremely complex transaction far more difficult for the average punter to decide on?

Richard Graham: My hon. Friend has spent a lot of time working in the sector and knows the issues well. He is absolutely right to highlight the unintended consequence of the retail distribution review, which in a sense is to put people off the idea of buying up-front advice on a complex product such as an annuity. For those who have a relatively small pot of savings, such as £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000—a lot of money for some people—the idea of paying £400 or £500 for advice is not attractive. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that, because it is one of the issues.

I drew attention to the perfect customer for an annuity; let me now give the other side of the coin. By contrast is the customer who is told by the provider of their direct contribution pension—his or her only modest source of savings—that they need an annuity, has no idea what an annuity is and asks the pensions provider what they can offer; who has no idea whether that offer is good, bad or indifferent, goes for the cheaper of the options available, probably leaving out any cover for his or her partner and certainly any provision for inflation, and forgets to

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mention perhaps a hereditary heart weakness; and who moves from a suburb to the inner city to be closer to shops and a hospital, lives for a few years and then dies, having drawn only a small percentage of income from a capital sum that has now disappeared, leaving their wife, husband or partner on the state pension. For what purpose did he or she save?

With longevity the way it is, we might argue that such a customer scarcely exists, as we would all hope, but the reality is that some of his or her characteristics are a reality—as the Pensions Advisory Service has confirmed—especially in the understanding of what they are buying. Ros Altmann has estimated that insurers will often keep between half and three quarters of a pension fund they take over and convert it into an annuity.

I did a quick reality check on the word “annuity” in a Gloucester pub last weekend. Of the 22 people I asked, six said it was a financial thing like a pension, one of those said it gave income and most of the rest said they had no idea. I accept that it was a bad weekend for Gloucester rugby, and trying to discuss annuities in a pub was pushing my luck, but I do not believe that the people of Britain know what an annuity is or that the average response would be any different. Why is an annuity useful? Do people have to have one? The answer is no. How do they go about getting one? An annuity is potentially the second biggest financial purchase of our lives, so the current state of information about them is worrying.

In any market that size—£12 billion a year is big—if a customer feels that he or she has to buy something but does not really know what it is, the definition of good value is elusive. Customers need a lot of knowledge to pick the right product and the market is dominated by a handful of big names, so there is a danger of high charges, a lack of transparency and inadequate protection. The annuities market more than lives up to all those risks. I rang the Pensions Advisory Service yesterday to get some initial advice—just one man in his 50s ringing in to ask questions about annuities. I got good general advice on a whole number of issues, but when I asked about charges, I was told confidently, “You will never be able to work out what the charges are.” I asked the helpful adviser whether he thought that was right. “Not for me to say,” he replied, which was fair enough. However, it is right for hon. Members to raise and challenge the situation on behalf of our constituents, who ought to know what they are being charged for a product as important as an annuity.

Almost 20,000 of my constituents in Gloucester are between 50 and 64. For all of those people, some understanding of annuities would be useful. It is not good enough to have a product for which people will simply never know the charges. The situation for annuities sits oddly beside that for their stepbrother or sister, the pension. Huge efforts are being made to clarify, and make as simple as possible, all the costs and charges for pensions; to estimate a management fee that is neither rapacious nor drives investment managers to the lowest common denominator; and, above all, to make charges transparent to the client. The status quo is tantamount to an insurance firm—everyone is under the same roof, in the same organisation—saying, “Right, over here is a team of investment managers managing pensions: you

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need to be squeaky clean, work out all the costs and charges and report them completely. Your margins will be tight. Over here, in this corner, we have the annuities guys: your pricing is roughly what you want it to be, and there is no need to explain or declare anything.” That has to be wrong. When such efforts are being made to ensure transparency about money coming into a pension, it is especially strange that, at the moment, the system does so little for moneys coming out of a pension and into an annuity.

For today’s debate, we have the benefit of the detailed investigations by the Financial Conduct Authority’s consumer panel and The Daily Telegraph. The latter found that differences between annuities offered amounted to as much as £1,444 a year on a pot of £100,000. The FCA’s consumer panel found that commission charges vary by up to £1,000, which might, for the cynical, explain why the industry is so shy when it comes to explaining what the charges are.

The FCA found in general that the industry was “very dysfunctional”, with “possible exploitative pricing”—up to 6% of a customer’s pot could go in commission. In a rebuke to any of us who thought that the answer might simply be to provide more information, the consumer panel found that customers are put off by the mountain of jargon and “information overload”. Frankly, I am irresistibly reminded of the endowment mortgage I was obliged to buy in the 1980s: however it was explained, it was absolute gobbledegook, and there were high commissions, often from one insurer to another. The consumer panel found that 3.5% commission for an introduction from Zurich to Legal & General seemed to be the going rate for annuities today. In the 1980s, if someone wanted to buy a house, they had to have an endowment mortgage. Later on, of course, the fabulous projected investment returns did not materialise, the mis-selling was investigated, fines were levied, the product was binned and the financial sector moved on. Will we see a repeat of that?

I chaired a seminar recently on annuities and asked the Association of British Insurers whether there was a danger of any of its members being sued for mis-selling. There was a long pause before the answer came: “Not yet.” It is therefore not surprising that the FCA consumer panel has recommended urgent regulatory and Government-led reforms to protect and benefit millions of our constituents.

I will turn now to what changes have already been made, and then move on to what could or perhaps should be done next. I start by recognising what the Government have already done. Some of the changes made by the Treasury should have been made a decade ago. For example, it has removed the default retirement age and the effective requirement to purchase an annuity by the age of 75. That is a vital change: it means people no longer have to buy an annuity, and, if they do not, they can take 25% of their savings tax-free and draw an income from the rest. That is a serious option for many people. The starting point of a debate on annuities for every individual should always be whether an annuity will be useful and helpful to them, and what the alternatives are.

There have also been changes to the capped draw-down rules—more jargon, I am afraid, but those rules have been reformed, and that matters within the sector. The Treasury has also encouraged the ABI’s new code of

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conduct for retirement choices, which has come into play and has made modest steps forward on explanations and general advice, but I do not believe that that is enough. At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions has promoted open market options and obliged DC schemes to provide what it calls a “wake-up pack” of information, pre-retirement.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. On that point, when people previously received their packs on coming up to retirement, there was every chance that there would have been a standard form in the pack from a chosen insurer detailing a chosen product. That has now gone, and people are given a form listing their options and saying where they need to go for each. That is a great step forward.

Richard Graham: My hon. Friend is knowledgeable and absolutely right to highlight that all ways of giving people more options and widening the market to give them choice must be steps in the right direction.

The changes that the Treasury has made do not in themselves answer the nub of the issue, as highlighted so well by the FCA consumer panel. The uncomfortable truth remains that very few people understand annuities or make the informed choices that increased choice should enable them to make. They do not understand what they are buying or whether it is the right product for them, and they have no idea what charges are being levied and whether they are appropriate. As the consumer panel concluded, much more needs to be done. The fundamental issues that I flagged up at the beginning of the debate remain unresolved. An annuity is still something that is bought once and that lasts for ever; however, the circumstances of the buyer might change.

I will finish by touching on some of the issues that could and should be addressed. I do not want to make too much of the structure of the market, but it would be interesting to hear the Minister’s views. In a way, an annuity is an offshoot of the pensions sector—it is what happens after a pension—but because it is provided by the insurance sector, it is regulated by regulators that are ultimately responsible to the Treasury. The Pensions Advisory Service is DWP funded; the Money Advice Service is separately funded, and the appointments of its chairman and chief executive are approved by the Treasury, but it is answerable for its strategy to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There is therefore a sense of different advice being offered by different agencies that are responsible to different Departments. That situation does not seem wholly satisfactory to me. It is interesting that the Opposition have today chosen to put up their pensions spokesman rather than someone from their Treasury team.

There is the structural issue of how annuities are regulated and whether the gap between increasing regulation on the pension side, especially in the context of defined contributions and auto-enrolment, could be mirrored by more regulation on the annuities side. I hope that the DWP’s consultation on charges will also shed light on the charges on annuities. Perhaps the Treasury will be able to absorb that when the FCA investigation gets under way.

The broader issues remain, and the nub of the problem is that annuities are unchangeable and inflexible. It is well worth considering the suggestion floated in The

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by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—that annuities might be changeable when circumstances change, so that they become more like mortgages that may be fixed for a period and thereafter traded or renewed.

A couple of hon. Members have highlighted advice. There is a strong case for believing that annuity brokers are not adding value for customers and that hidden commission should be revealed and consideration given to whether it is appropriate. More specific advice should be offered. When someone rings the Pensions Advisory Service to talk about annuities, they are told straight away that the service cannot discuss an individual’s specific circumstances and cannot access information about their pension or anything else. The advice, although good, is generic, but specific advice about people’s individual situations is most needed and least available.

Heather Wheeler: I am delighted that my hon. Friend called today’s debate because I have received a letter from a constituent, Mr Tejpal Singh of Stenson Fields, who asked me to ensure that the House had a debate on annuities, so a new year resolution has been kept. Mr Singh’s point was that people were given specific advice to save and were given to understand that when they took out an annuity at a specific age, the return would be £10,000 or £7,500 a year, but they are lucky to get £4,000 or even £3,000 now. That is difficult for people who have done the right thing on this important cost-of-living issue, but then the market has collapsed. I wonder whether the advice that my hon. Friend is referring to could help with that.

Jim Dobbin(in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be short.

Richard Graham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. There is no doubt that annuity rates have dropped sharply from 10% to 5% over the last few years. Rather like charges on pensions and on investment management generally, it is only when a market becomes more difficult that it becomes more important to shine a light on charges and commission structures, because they become a much higher part of the total cost. If someone’s significant pension pot does not generate a significant income, they want to know where the money is going. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue, which has propelled the annuities issue on to the front pages of newspapers from the business and financial sections.

I must sound a warning to the Opposition. We have heard from them over the last few weeks and months a sudden and dramatic cry that something must be done urgently. That rather prompts the question why they did so little during their long 13 years in office, with almost as many pensions Ministers. Some of the issues have been around for a long time. I am pleased that the FCA took up the issue of annuities relatively soon after its birth, put its consumer panel on the case and has now come up with research showing, I think without further question, that the annuities market is not working satisfactorily.

I want to make three points to clarify the matter. First, the annuities market is no longer working for many people in this country. It needs to be reformed,

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and if that is to be useful, it should be welcomed by everyone in the industry; otherwise, annuities will have no real role in future financial planning. Secondly, the opaqueness of the market stands in stark contrast with the increasing amount of light in the pensions industry as a whole and is therefore more of an anomaly than it was. Thirdly, the reports now coming in from regulatory bodies provide the Government with a wonderful opportunity to do something that millions of people throughout the country would be grateful for and reform an imperfect market so that it works much more effectively than at present. It falls to our Government to have that opportunity, and I hope we will seize it in the remaining 18 months of this Parliament.

9.56 am

Mr Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate. He is spot on in saying that annuities represent an important market and that we must ensure that it functions properly, fairly and to the benefit of those who have saved for their retirement and done the right thing but now face the second most difficult financial decision of their lives. The cost of getting that decision wrong is clear.

The National Association of Pension Funds has suggested that, every year, pensioners lose between £500 million and £1 billion by not shopping around for the best annuity rate, and that they make the wrong choices for a variety of reasons. We must tackle that. The research suggests that more than half of retirees do not shop around for an annuity but roll over to one of their existing pension provider’s annuities.

When I was a Treasury Minister, I worked with the Association of British Insurers in drawing up its code of conduct, which helps to shift the balance away from the default option of staying with the pension provider and towards shopping around. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) referred in her intervention to the change in the wake-up pack and the forms in it. However, I question whether that code of conduct is working; we must look carefully at whether the effective default is to shop around. I am not sure that the evidence exists that the code has been as effective as it should be.

My second point, raised in the report produced by the Financial Conduct Authority’s consumer panel, is about what happens when people do shop around. It is clear that the quality of help available is variable. There are some good sources of advice, but too often they are less than satisfactory. Some websites are not clear about the charges and commission earned from putting someone in contact with an annuity provider. It is sometimes not clear whether the website is offering a view of the whole market or just part of it. I looked at the Money Advice Service’s website this morning and it is clear that its comparison tables draw information from a panel of annuity providers. Firms must be much clearer about what service they are offering when people are shopping around.

We must consider whether consumers are being ripped off by hidden charges when they are shopping around, whether they are comparing the whole market or a

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segment of it, and whether they understand the regulatory protection when using such websites. We must ensure that consumers are properly protected and think about existing sources of information and whether they are adequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester referred to the Pensions Advisory Service. The Money Advice Service also provides information on annuities; one recommendation from the consumer panel was that the support given through the Money Advice Service and the Pension Advisory Service should be beefed up to help consumers.

We need to bear employers in mind, as they are another important player in the market. The reason why our constituents have to make difficult decisions about how to spend their pension pot is that employees are moved away from defined benefit schemes to defined contribution schemes. We are putting much more risk on the shoulders of employees. Although a large number of employers support their employees in making such choices and put them into contact with a pension adviser at retirement, we need to encourage more employers to do that, so that more employees who are coming up to retirement know exactly what they should be looking for and who they should be consulting.

We need to look at how the annuities market functions, because a poorly performing market has a detrimental effect on income for pensioners and also, in the longer term, reduces the incentive to save. If people feel that they will not get good value for money when they retire, they think, “Why should I put money into a pension? Why shouldn’t I put money into a house instead, or into an ISA?”

We need to make sure that we have a properly functioning market. That is not to say that all that providers should be doing is the bare minimum set out in regulation. Providers should recognise that they have a role to play in having high standards, so that consumers feel that they are being treated fairly and they know, for example, what they are being charged, that they have the best possible rate and that they have explored all the options. Providers have a role to play, too, in ensuring a high standard of conduct in those sectors. A low standard of conduct will lead to potential mis-selling risks in future and, as we have seen in the banking sector, that costs the industry dear.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) is making a compelling argument about the need to open up the market. I have been doing some research and it is clear that more than 400,000 people a year are making this decision. That is a huge number and it makes the case for opening the market up even more important. He talked about trying to delink product choices; we can look at what has gone on in the mortgage industry, for example, in decoupling household insurance. If we move forward to a more retail approach to the segment, it will help more people have a wide range of options as they consider this very important decision.

Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. We need to ensure that there is a more retail-type approach. One reason why people are able to shop around and compare mortgages is that there is good-quality information out there.

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It is easy to compare the different rates on mortgages and the monthly payments people will make on different mortgages. The charges are very transparent as well. We can learn things from the mortgage market and its transparency that can be applied to the annuities market. I do not often disagree with the pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), but I am not entirely convinced that being able to trade in annuities will work and be effective. There are some comparisons with the mortgage market that we cannot necessarily draw.

Finally, I want to make a broader point. Over the course of the past decade, there has been quite a lot of focus on, to use another bit of jargon, the accumulation phase—what happens when people build up their pensions savings. The previous Government commissioned Lord Turner to look at pensions. I think there was some dispute between Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) about whether Lord Turner’s recommendations should be implemented, but they were, with cross-party consensus. There is considerable consensus over the introduction of the single-tier pension. One area that we have not debated in enough detail today starts that process. What happens when people spend their pension pot? What choices are available to them?

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester talked eloquently about an asymmetry of knowledge between someone seeking an annuity and an annuity provider, and about the circumstances that people face. Alternative products, such as income draw-down products, are out there, but that transfers both the investment risk and the longevity risk to the investor—the pensioner. We need to look carefully at the products out there, recognising that this very polarised market, with annuities on the one hand and draw-down products on the other, may not necessarily be in the interests of consumers. Other alternatives might be out there.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): My hon. Friend is making his points with typical perspicacity. Before he concludes, will he consider what I think is one of the biggest factors in the market—the role of the Bank of England, both in terms of what it does to savers and what it does to the annuities market?

Mr Hoban: We were not going to get very far in the debate without that being mentioned; I am surprised that we got to four minutes past 10 before my hon. Friend raised the role of the Bank of England. I do not want to digress too much into that, but the Bank of England’s research into the inpact of quantitative easing on the pensions market demonstrates that there are upsides and downsides—that QE has stimulated the economy, and that has improved the value of equities as well as having a potential impact on gilt yields. However, let us leave that to one side.

We are moving to a situation in which people coming up to retirement will have a number of different sources for income in retirement. Those may be part-time work, equity in their houses or ISAs. There will certainly be a DC pension pot and there may be a DB pension. People’s income sources and needs will change over their retirement. Given that we are all expected not only to work longer, but to live longer, we will have choices to make. We need a proper debate about how we equip

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people for that post-retirement phase and how they can have the information they need to make the right choices—not only about what costs they will face in retirement, but about how to maximise their income in retirement.

Annuities are an important part of the market, but they are not the whole of it and we need a bigger debate to look at what is happening. That debate needs to involve not only pension companies and fund managers, but representatives of those in retirement, as well as those approaching retirement. It needs to ensure that the regulators—the FCA, particularly—are involved, as well as the Money Advice Service.

It is important that we get the issue right, because if we do not, many of our constituents will enter retirement with a lower income than they expect—perhaps lower than they feel is necessary to meet their financial needs. That is not good for them and it is not good for us. This debate has helped to spark a much wider process of debating how we ensure that people approaching retirement get the best financial deal possible.

10.6 am

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate and on his chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on pensions, which has aired these issues on a number of occasions.

Over the lifetime of this Parliament, we have discussed the pensions industry a number of times. To date, the discussion has mostly been of the accumulation part and not, to use the jargon, the decumulation part, which we will talk about today. However, the issues are similar. I am a little less sanguine than some hon. Members who have spoken about the fact that we have fixed the transparency problems in the accumulation part of the industry—I believe we have not started to do so yet. The same problems of market failure, asymmetric knowledge and lack of transparency exist in the industry. Whether hon. Members represent the party of the cost of living or the party of hard-working people—Conservatives seem to have won in terms of numbers, at least in today’s debate—the issue really matters.

The fact that annuities are talked about so little compared with, say, energy prices, is a function of the point my hon. Friend has made. People understand annuities so little—annuities take people outside their comfort zones. That is a terrible thing when 400,000 people a year sign up for such products. This morning, during the time of the debate, 250 people will have signed up for an annuity. By lunchtime, a constituent of every Member in the Chamber will have signed up for an annuity. Approximately a third of them will have bought the wrong product within the market, even by the terms of the market. In my opinion, the market is inappropriate and a great disincentive for people to be part of the pensions industry. It is one of the reasons why so many people who should be investing in pensions would rather bite their arm off than get involved in either the accumulation or decumulation part of the industry.

Let us step back and think about the structure of the industry, because my solution responds a bit to that. It is an artificial industry, fed by tax relief. We have made the decision in the UK to have a pensions industry that is predicated on the relatively low basic state pension—it is low compared with the rest of Europe—but one that

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is supplemented by tax relief and private sector provision, of which the annuity is one of the final products. The tax relief that we pump into the industry is about £30 billion a year, which clearly behoves the Government to get involved. With auto-enrolment, that urgency is becoming much greater. It is not acceptable for us to leave it as an industry that has failed, on any measure, at any time when it has been looked at. It is reasonable that the Government get involved.

There are two parts to the failure. The one that gets most attention is the failure of people to shop around—the open market option—notwithstanding the progress that the ABI has made with its code of conduct. It is in that context that one third of people are currently making the wrong choices. However, that is not the only aspect of the failure. The industry is not subject to the market pressures that would cause better performance. Within the context of the industry, one third of people are choosing wrongly, but the whole industry is failing to provide products that are competitively priced and transparent.

The industry has fairly viciously applied the term “caveat emptor”. It is playing it long, because it is only a matter of time before a Conservative Government or a Labour Government take the matter more seriously and start to fix things. In discussions of energy companies, in which I have also been involved, it has been said that they operate a cartel. I do not like to use words such as “cartel” lightly, but we have to look at the return on capital employed in industries and at transparency. Anybody who compares the pensions industry with the energy industry will know where the evidence of a cartel, such as it is, exists.

The National Association of Pension Funds and Cass business school report estimated that about £1 billion a year was being misappropriated, or at least was not going to the pension holder, because about one third of people buy the incorrect product. We could fix that through the application of the OMO—more attempts to make the market transparent—but the view I took as I was doing research for the debate is that that is not actually the solution for annuities market. The solution is that the Government should offer annuities. People will say, “You want to nationalise the industry.” I do not want to nationalise the industry—I am a free marketeer. I was about to say that I am as much of a free marketeer as anyone in the debate, but then I saw my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), who possibly would challenge that. However, I really do believe in the free market. I believe that the free market is a panacea and a great mechanism for allocation of capital and all that goes with that, but the annuities market is not working. When a market does not work, particularly a market that is at the centre of Government policy on retirement and incomes in old age, and all that goes with that, it is reasonable that we look at what we might do about it.

Our national savings organisation in Glasgow offers interest rates as the Government sell gilts. I see no reason why an organisation like that cannot offer annuities in the same way. It is basically a very simple product. Because of the interest of the industry in developing the asymmetry and all that goes with it, the product has been overly complicated.

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Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I apologise for missing the initial part of the debate because I was in a Select Committee.

The market is not completely free. The Government have already intervened to say that people should be contributing to pensions. People do not have a choice or increasingly will not have a choice not to take part. The Government have a responsibility to the people they have placed in that position.

David Mowat: That is absolutely the point that I am making. It is not a free market, and it behoves Government to do more than they have done so far to get it right.

One approach is to try to make the market work better—that was the subject of some of the points that have been made already. The other way of dealing with it is more dramatic. I believe it is reasonable that the Government think very hard and seriously about providing products that would compete in the market with the industry guys, because, in any event, the principal thing that annuity providers do is match Government bonds. One reason why QE has been an issue is that the industry is buying Government bonds in order to match income and liability. It is a classic middleman thing. It is entirely reasonable for the Government—a Government of either complexion—to look long and hard at that suggestion. I believe that will happen, because we cannot continue with the market abuse that has occurred over the past two decades.

Richard Graham: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point on which we will no doubt hear more from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont). Does my hon. Friend really believe that nationalisation of the annuities sector is in the overall interest of large numbers of taxpayers, who will in effect see the risk for their product transferred to them?

David Mowat: The point that has been made, I think, is that that risk is currently with the annuity providers; that seems to be the implications of that point. If that is my hon. Friend’s belief, it would be reasonable to say that their profits should be transparent, understood and not abusive.

Richard Graham: Does my hon. Friend not see that that is precisely the argument for reform? The case I have made is that the opportunity is there. The initial research by the consumer panel provides enough light to justify a more detailed investigation, which is happening. The Government can then make decisions to reform the industry. The mortgage sector was reformed, but the Government are not providing the country’s mortgages.

David Mowat: My hon. Friend is right that the Government do not provide mortgages, but they do provide people with interest rate products. There is an analogy with annuities, which are an extremely important transaction. In any event, the industry is an artificial one, because it is driven, as I have said, by tax relief. Annuities are not optional—we can draw down, but, broadly speaking, until very recently, everybody has had to buy an annuity.

By the way, I did not advocate nationalisation. I am advocating that the Government offer a product. They can compete with the existing market, rather like the National Employment Savings Trust competes with

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the existing market. That is not nationalisation. If the existing market is pricing things in a certain way and making very clever decisions on longevity and actuarial things and so on, it will win, and so be it; good luck to it. However, I suspect that that may not be the case. We must bring trust back. I agree that it is important to make the market work. I floated the point about national insurance because I think that that proposal will have to happen, but I also think that there are a number of things we could do to make the market work better.

Mr Hoban: One objective of the FCA is to promote competition. It is currently undertaking a thematic review of the annuities market. That would be a very good starting point for it to undertake a market study to look at the economics of the annuity industry, to see whether it is making excessive profits, and to understand the charging structures in order to help to inform what the next stage of the reforms of the annuity market should be.

David Mowat: I have absolutely no problem with any of that. In fact, the next point in my notes is on the Office of Fair Trading. We should try to make the annuities market work better, in the same way as we should make the accumulation market work better. The fact that NEST has been introduced is not a reason not to have that happen. My proposal on the Government offering annuities alongside the market is not a reason not to make the market work better.

The point was made earlier on education in the market, the retail distribution review and all the rest of it. I do not agree that the charging structure is a disincentive, if that was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who has left the Chamber. It might be a disincentive, but it is no worse than a charging structure that pays people to recommend products based on commission and all that that means. That is not a solution in its own right, but I agree that we should try to make the market work better. We should hold the ABI to account on the application of the OMO.

We could try other things. If one third of people continue to stay with their existing supplier and buy inappropriate products as a consequence, there is a case for enforced separation, meaning that people buy the decumulation product from a different provider from the one from which they buy the accumulation product. That is entirely reasonable if the OMO code of conduct does not work better—it is currently rather patchy.

Another thing we could do to make the market work better is enforce the simplification of annuities, exactly as we have done in the energy industry, with bands to allow the comparison of products from different providers. The case for that is even stronger in the pensions industry than in the energy industry. I want recognition that draw-down might be used on smaller pots than at present, so that it receives wider application. When I speak to anybody who is about to make a decision on whether to use an annuity or a draw-down, I recommend that they think long and hard before they go down the annuity route. We could do more on that.

We need to make the market work better. The point I made about national insurance also applies to accumulation. NEST is working quite well, and it will be an incentive

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for reform in the industry. We could do the same with the decumulation part of the industry.

I have a couple of final points. It is interesting that a Treasury Minister is replying to the debate and a pensions spokesman is speaking for the Opposition. In a way, the issue has suffered because it has not wholly been owned by either Department and has tended to fall between the two. I hope that that does not continue. I also hope that people in the industry listen to the debate—I see that a couple of them are in the Public Gallery—because it is not right for the current situation to continue. It is not right that the industry response is to play it long. In the time I have been speaking, 40 people will have signed up for annuities, 15 of whom will have bought the wrong ones. We owe it to all our constituents to get that fixed.

10.22 am

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate, because annuities continue to rise up the political agenda. I was struck by the hon. Gentleman’s speech, which I interpreted as a clear message that the market is not working properly. Indeed, I understood him to say that the annuities market was broken and cannot be fixed simply through individual engagement by consumers. The repeated references to the Financial Conduct Authority’s consumer panel report were helpful, because the whole thrust of that report was that the market cannot be fixed purely by increased transparency.

Several Government Members referred to mortgages. A big difference between mortgages and annuities is that annuities are one-off products, so consumers cannot learn more about annuities over time through repeated purchases. I agree with the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) that the idea of tradeable annuities, which was floated over the weekend by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—I was a little surprised that the hon. Member for Gloucester repeated that suggestion—will not get far.

The hon. Member for Gloucester provided compelling evidence of the fact that the market does not work effectively and cannot be fixed by individual engagement. His speech might stand as a metaphor for the Government’s approach, because there is general agreement that the market does not work properly—the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) made that argument eloquently. Moving from diagnosis to solution, however, the Government’s cupboard is pretty bare. I listened carefully to the solutions that the hon. Member for Gloucester suggested at the end of his speech. He noted that the Treasury had acted to remove the default retirement age and that people are no longer required by law to annuitise by 75. As the House of Commons Library made clear earlier this year, however, someone with a secure pension of less than £20,000 essentially has to annuitise by 75. Draw-down works well for those with big pension pots, but the rest of us still have to annuitise our defined contribution pot, so that is not a solution.

The hon. Gentleman was good enough to mention the Association of British Insurers code, but he was

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absolutely right to say that that is not enough. Let us be clear about what the ABI has done so far. The open market option gives people more information about their ability not to take an annuity from their existing pension provider. The hon. Member for Fareham was somewhat generous when he suggested that the results were not in yet to show whether that will deal with the lack of shopping around. It will not deal with the problem. All the evidence in the market shows that inertia is a powerful force on consumers that leads to excess profits for providers.

Mr Hoban: The code of conduct came into place only on 1 March last year, so it has run for less than a year. It is therefore hard for either of us to say that it has or has not worked.

Gregg McClymont: The hon. Gentleman referred to the Turner commission. The thrust of its conclusions—and, indeed, of the auto-enrolment pensions policy pursued by the previous Labour Government and the current Government—was that inertia is a fact of pensions markets. Auto-enrolment is an attempt to use inertia for the good of the public and the consumer. That is the basis on which pensions policy is developing under the pensions Minister—a process that began under the previous Labour Government.

There is a massive lack of engagement and involvement in pensions. Leaving aside the ABI, there is general recognition in the pensions world that the open market option is simply not going to do the job. That is the thrust of the FCA consumer report, which has been mentioned several times. Having looked at the matter closely over two years, and based on the Turner commission consensus, which we wish to maintain, I am prepared to say that inertia in the annuities market is a reality that leads to excess profits. That is not only my description, but the description given by the pensions Minister, who said in a recent television documentary that excess profits were being made by insurers, which is a product of inertia.

Richard Graham: The interesting point about inertia is that that is precisely the context in which I recommended that a change be considered to the current requirement for an individual to buy an annuity for life, whatever their circumstances or however those circumstances change. That crucial change would affect the inertia about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, because it would enable people to reconsider and change their annuity if circumstances demanded that. Does he agree?

Gregg McClymont: No, I do not agree. The problem in the market is that people do not shop around, but the hon. Gentleman suggests that we should solve that problem by creating an even more complex product, in which people will magically start to engage in trading and moving from one annuity to another.

Richard Graham: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Gregg McClymont: No, let me continue. It is simply not feasible or credible. The idea of tradable annuities is a non-starter, and I will set out the response to it from across the industry. Phil Loney from Royal London said they had not been thought through by the Minister. Mark Wood from JLT Employee Benefits described it

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as misleading to compare annuities to mortgages. Tom McPhail, who is present in the Public Gallery, said that the Government

“should not try to invent products which…aren’t likely to be…value for money.”

The Actuary magazine described the wider response from the industry as “scathing”. The idea is a non-starter.

Richard Graham: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Gregg McClymont: We have heard from the hon. Gentleman, who gave a long and interesting speech, and it is now my duty to respond. I shall make a little more progress and then I will let him back in. He diagnosed the problem effectively, but provided no solution. The airy-fairy, half-baked suggestion that we should think about tradable annuities does not deal with the reality, which more than one Conservative Member has set out this morning, that hundreds of thousands of people are annuitising every year, right now. What are the Government doing about that now, in real time?

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Gloucester diagnosed the problem very well, and understood that transparency will not solve it. The solution cannot be based on a utopian hope for greater individual engagement; it must be like what the OFT report did more widely for pensions. The demand side—the buy side—is too weak; how can we strengthen consumer weight or consumers’ ability to get a good deal? My view is that although individual engagement is a good thing, and anything that encourages it should be welcomed, it will not solve the problem, given that inertia is a central fact of the pensions marketplace.

The Opposition tabled a sensible amendment to the Pensions Bill which would at least have begun to tackle the problem, by ensuring that in the existing market—in the real world, right now—those who annuitise would get access to properly regulated, independent brokerage. That is not a panacea, but it is a reasonable starting point. It bears positive comparison with the Government’s lack of action. They have done nothing on annuities; there are no clauses about them in the Pensions Bill. That may or may not be an indictment of Government policy. No one says that the problem can be solved overnight, but surely an amendment of the kind tabled by Labour is a reasonable starting point.

More widely, the only answer is more purchasing power on the side of the consumer. That means we need to move to mandatory independent brokering, ideally in-house rather than external. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) looks puzzled. In 2012, the National Association of Pension Funds, which is represented in the Public Gallery, rightly suggested that the annuity-buying process should be part of a pension scheme—that goes to the point that building up a pension pot is entirely part of the same process as producing an income at the end. Pension schemes should have a role in providing annuity brokering advice—that is what I mean by “in-house”.

Of course, that leads us into the argument about pension schemes being big enough for that to happen. I know that the hon. Member for Gloucester is aware, although it was not mentioned in the debate, that the market is fragmented. There are hundreds of thousands of pension schemes, but the providers of annuities are four or five insurance companies and three or four

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specialists. It is worth asking why market entrants do not emerge to compete with the giants. It is probably to do with the amount of capital needed, and the fact that on the insurer side it is possible to cross-subsidise products, because of being involved during the phase of building up the pension pot, as well as in the creation of a retirement income at the end. We need pension schemes to be involved as a matter of course in ensuring that their members get the best possible annuity at the end of the saving process. That seems a sensible way to proceed.

The hon. Member for Warrington South, who has done doughty work in the area we are debating, suggested that there should be a Government-backed annuity provider, and the hon. Member for Gloucester intervened and said that that was nationalisation. If it is, then so is the National Employment Savings Trust, which the Government support. NEST is a Government-backed scheme intended to bring down the benchmark for charges during the phase of building up a pension pot, and it has been very successful. That is not nationalisation, and nor is the suggestion of the hon. Member for Warrington South.

Richard Graham: The hon. Gentleman’s earlier reluctance to give way is uncharacteristic, especially as 45 minutes were left in the debate for Front-Bench spokesmen. He has two or three times confused issues, especially on my exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South about nationalisation. My hon. Friend clarified that and explained that he was looking for participation in the market, not domination of it. Members on both sides of the House have an opportunity today to express their views and reach a consensus; the review by the Financial Conduct Authority and the consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions provide an opportunity for the House to move forward on an issue of concern to all our constituents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree? He should surely reach for consensus, not political division.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should be short.

Gregg McClymont: I am not sure what the point of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was, other than to show that he had not understood the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington South. Everyone else understood that he meant proceeding in the way NEST does, rather than nationalisation. For people who understood the point, no clarification was needed.

Mr Hoban: There is a fundamental difference between NEST facilitating the building up of pension pots and the state bearing additional longevity risk by providing annuities. The additional longevity risk would be borne by taxpayers if it were not correctly assessed. That would add to the existing longevity risk that taxpayers face through changing demographics and increased care bills and pension costs.

Gregg McClymont: That sounds a plausible point; I should say it is for the hon. Member for Warrington South, who put the idea forward. My observation is that the idea is not nationalisation, but something along the lines of NEST, and that it would at least be worth thinking about for the Government.

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David Mowat: Since we are discussing the point I made, I feel I should chip in. Of course it was about participation. Two of my hon. Friends have made points about risk. The state already carries risk of inadequate pension provision, which is manifested daily. To talk about further risk in that context is disingenuous.

Gregg McClymont: That is clearly a matter for Conservative Members to debate among themselves after we leave the Chamber.

We face a broken market; the question is what to do about it. It seems to the Opposition that the way forward is increasingly to involve pension schemes in—I am wary about using this term, as I try not to use the jargon—“decumulation”. Pension schemes are involved in building up savings pots for members. They should also be involved in turning those savings pots into retirement income, which is what the process is all about, after all. Moving to a system in which pension schemes ensured that their members got decent, well regulated brokerage advice would mean bigger pension schemes, because many very small pension schemes do not now have the ability.

We have mentioned NEST. What does it do about annuities? It has sealed panel bids from annuity providers for each cohort coming to retirement. That is not the whole of the market, because NEST must annuitise for people with very small pots, as part of its public service objective, but that is the road we must go down. The Royal Mail pension scheme is another one that recently announced that it would provide an in-house brokerage service for its members.

The hon. Member for Gloucester was absolutely right in his analysis of the market. The problem—it is not his problem; he is an august Back Bencher, but not on the ministerial team—is that so far the pensions Minister and, I assume, the Treasury have not come up with anything concrete. Until they do, the hundreds of people who are annuitising as we speak and the 400,000 people who annuitise every year will surely look at the Government and ask when they will end the rip-off and the excess profits. If the pensions Minister says that insurance companies are profiting excessively from annuities, when will the Government act? Surely it must be sooner rather than later.

I make this point again to the Government, in the hope that they might listen. Any solution that depends solely on increasing individual consumers’ engagement in the process of buying an annuity will not succeed. The whole thrust of Government pensions policy since Turner, which this Government have continued, is that inertia is a reality that we must make work in the public interest, rather than in the interests of pension company shareholders. That has been the thrust of pensions policy for a decade now. Any solution to the annuities market dysfunction must start from that assumption. In the spirit of the Turner consensus and co-operation on auto-enrolment, I urge the Government to take heed of that reality in the annuities market.

10.42 am

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing

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this debate and opening it so well. He brings to the matter his professional experience before entering the House, his experience as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on pensions and his experience of discussing these matters in Gloucester pubs, all of which have helped our deliberations. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), who served with such distinction as a Treasury Minister dealing with such matters for more than two years and made a substantial contribution to the Government’s achievements in the area. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who spoke with great passion and demonstrated his determination to ensure that consumers—our constituents—are served well by the annuities market.

It is a priority for all of us that the annuities market should work in consumers’ best interests. When people have saved hard for a pension, it is right that they should get the best out of their savings on retirement. The decision that people make about their savings on retirement can determine what income they receive for the rest of their lives. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most important financial decisions that a person can make. As we have heard, more than 400,000 people purchase annuities each year, and studies show that there can be more than a 30% difference in the incomes offered by providers, highlighting the importance of making the right decision.

The Government want to ensure that the annuities market works in favour of the consumer and that consumers can make well-informed decisions to secure the best rates and exert effective competitive pressure on the market. The Government have been working with industry and consumer groups to make effective changes in the market, including work carried out by the open market option review group, which has introduced a number of measures aimed at encouraging consumers to shop around on the open market when buying an annuity.

For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester pointed out—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, who worked so hard on the matter—the Association of British Insurers has introduced a code of conduct for retirement choices, which came into effect on 1 March last year. The code is binding on all ABI members that sell annuities, covering almost all the market. In addition, tailored advice and tools have been developed by the Money Advice Service and the Pensions Advisory Service to help consumers understand their choices and promote the benefits of shopping around.

The ABI code has brought about an important change in how annuity providers communicate with their customers, a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). The removal of application forms from pre-retirement packs actively encourages consumers to engage with the important process of choosing their annuity type and provider, ensuring that they do not automatically settle for the default. Through requirements on providers to provide better information to retirees in their wake-up packs, and new and improved tools such as the Money Advice Service’s comparison

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tables and the Pensions Advisory Service’s online planners, we can ensure that consumers have the resources that they need to make informed decisions.

The ABI will evaluate the impact of its code in March this year, one year after its implementation. The OMO review group will also evaluate its wider package of measures and their effectiveness.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I apologise for not being here in time, Mr Dobbin. My plane was an hour late, so I could not be here. I also apologise to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I wanted to speak in this debate, but I did not have the chance. Does the Minister agree that the language used in the selling of annuities, especially to elderly people, must be such that they can understand what they are getting themselves into? I believe that they do not.

Mr Gauke: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It must be right that we should do all that we can to ensure as much transparency for consumers as possible. That includes a number of aspects, some of which I have mentioned. Let me go further.

The code and other measures will only be as successful as the outcomes that they prompt. We want clear evidence that more people are making active, better choices about their retirement income as a result of the changes. If we do not, we will not hesitate to consider further action. In addition to the ongoing work to help consumers make better choices, the FCA is currently conducting a thematic review of the annuities market and how well it is working to serve consumers’ interests, a pricing survey of all annuity providers and a comparison of the rates available to consumers through a range of distribution channels. The review will consider whether firms create barriers that can restrict consumers from shopping around, and what risks and potential for detriment those barriers may present for consumers. I look forward to the report’s initial findings, which will be published next month.

Although it is imperative that the annuity market works in the consumer’s interests as an effective option for retirement income, it is important to consider the retirement income market as a whole to ensure that consumers have income flexibility in retirement. To increase flexibility, the Government have removed both the default retirement age and the effective requirement to purchase an annuity by age 75. Whether they annuitise or not, individuals are permitted to take 25% of their accumulated pension savings as a tax-free lump sum before going on to secure an income with the remaining savings. To ensure that that income can best serve retirees’ needs, the Government have reformed the capped draw-down rules and raised the annual withdrawal limit from 100% to 120% of the value of an equivalent annuity. That can help to raise the retirement incomes of individuals in draw-down arrangements who may recently have experienced reductions in income due to wider economic conditions.

There is additional flexibility for those with a guaranteed income of at least £20,000 a year. With income already secured, they have the option of a flexible draw-down arrangement, in which they can withdraw any amount from their pension pot. Those coming to retirement will benefit from having more flexibility in deciding how to

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provide an income for themselves in retirement, and for those with small pension pots, the Government have taken steps to reform the trivial commutation pensions tax rules. An individual who is aged 60 or over with total pension savings of less than £18,000 can withdraw the entirety of their savings as a lump sum. The first 25% of that lump sum is normally tax-free, with the remainder taxable as income. In addition, small occupational pension pots under £2,000, and up to two small personal pension pots under £2,000, can be taken as a lump sum for those aged 60 or over, even when people have savings in excess of the aggregate limit. All those options add flexibility.

Having a decent retirement income is driven by two factors: saving enough for retirement through working life, and making good choices at retirement to secure a reliable and maintainable income throughout retirement. It is important to remember that the biggest determinant of how much income someone receives in retirement is how much they have saved during their working life. With the introduction of auto-enrolment, the Government have taken a huge step forward towards ensuring that consumers start to save for their retirement and carry on saving throughout their working life. Auto-enrolment is the most important pensions change for a century—around 6 million to 9 million people will make new savings and increase savings for their retirement. It is estimated that that will generate around £11 billion in extra pension saving by 2020, which will mean an extra £11 billion coming to the retirement income market within the next six years and a new wave of retirees with robust defined contribution pension pots, making it all the more important that we ensure that the retirement income market is working effectively.

The Government are also acting to protect those valuable savings. We recently consulted on proposals to cap pension charges and introduce a range of transparency measures as a means of ensuring that savings are not eroded by charges. We are currently assessing the responses to the consultation and an announcement will be made when that work is completed.

David Mowat: The Minister is right that the Government are consulting on pension charges. I have two questions for him. First, have the Government given any thought to annuity charges and to capping them? Secondly, approximately what level of charge does he believe is reasonable on an annuity of £100,000 during the lifetime of that annuity?

Mr Gauke: I suspect that my hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I am not inclined to be drawn into specifying what I believe is a reasonable charge for an annuity. What I will say to him—I will expand on this in a moment—is that we want to ensure that the annuities market works. We want to ensure that there are competitive pressures in that market. In the light of the consultation that we have undertaken on pension charges, the work undertaken by the FCA and the analysis of the evidence that has already emerged on the ABI code of conduct and so on, we want to ensure that the spotlight remains on the market, so that we do everything we can to ensure that it works effectively for consumers.

We are committed to ensuring that consumers have access to retirement income options that provide a reliable and decent income throughout retirement. That

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is an agenda to which ministerial colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions and I are committed. We are working together to ensure that consumers have appropriate options, value for money and support when they come to turn their hard-earned pension savings into a retirement income. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), who has responsibility for pensions, has recently suggested,reforms will be considered in the context of that work. That is why the Treasury and the DWP are currently considering the broad range of research and evidence on decumulation and how the market is working—to explore the impacts and interactions between market and consumer behaviour and Government policy.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester for securing and opening this debate. It has allowed us to discuss important annuities issues that are crucial for consumers if they are to secure the best from their savings at retirement.

Richard Graham: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gauke: I will certainly give way to my hon. Friend—I can assure him that I am not about to conclude my remarks in the next sentence or two.

Richard Graham: I will be very brief, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his very measured reply to the debate. When the FCA review is published and when the ABI one-year review of the code of conduct comes out, the Treasury—as the Minister was saying—will look closely at how well the market is working. Just so we can be absolutely clear, if there is evidence that it is not working as well as it should and that there are hidden commissions, unnecessary charges and all the rest of it, will they be taken into consideration and reviewed and changed if need be?

Mr Gauke: Let me put it this way: the industry, the Government, the regulator and consumers all have roles to play in ensuring that consumers get the best deal. So far, action by the Government, the industry and the regulator has focused on ensuring that the market works more effectively to ensure that consumers shop around; identifying conduct risks that prevent them from doing so; and ensuring that they have the right tools and information to make informed choices and provide competitive pressure on the market. However, as I said earlier, those measures are only as effective as the changes they bring about, and they should not stop here.

The Government look forward to the results of the ABI’s evaluation of the effectiveness of its code, and to the FCA’s findings following its thematic review of the market and how consumers are being treated. They will complement the Government’s review of the evidence on how the market is operating and whether improvements are necessary. However, to answer directly the question put by my hon. Friend, the Government are serious about ensuring that the action already under way has a clear and positive impact. We have not ruled out further action in future.

Gregg McClymont: Does the Minister accept that the thrust of pensions policy has been to accept the reality of inertia and harness it for the public good? Everything

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that he has read so far from his script has been about individual engagement. Does he think that individual engagement is enough in this market?

Mr Gauke: The hon. Gentleman is too quick to dismiss the role of individual engagement—it seems to me that he dismisses it almost completely. It is important that we engage individuals in such hugely important decisions, that we increase transparency and that we remove any hidden barriers that may exist. There is consensus—we all want the market to work. If we are to succeed, we must take every measure available to improve individual engagement. We should not dismiss it.

Mr Hoban: Is not the point that we can design legislation around inertia to benefit from it, and that we can also design out inertia? The default—acquiring an annuity from a pension provider—can be designed out through an effective open market option, which will ensure that consumers can shop around and have good-quality information. The mass engagement solution put forward by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) is another way of tackling inertia. He accepts that we can change inertia and get people to shop around instead.

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend puts it very well and I agree with his point.

To conclude, the view of all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate is that annuities are very important. There are concerns as to whether the market has worked as well as it might have done during a number of years, but there is recognition that the Government have made a number of reforms on our watch—I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, who was so involved with those reforms, is here. However, we must keep our eyes on the matter and keep the spotlight on the annuities market. Crucially, we must ensure that the market is working in the best interests of consumers.

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Health Funding (Telford and Wrekin)

11 am

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Mr Dobbin, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning and to have the opportunity to talk about health funding in Telford and Wrekin.

The objective of all of us, across the political divide and in the health community, is to strengthen the links between the formal national health service and local authorities and care providers in the community. That is the general consensus and I think everybody agrees with that as an overarching policy. However, I am concerned about the amount of resource available to tackle issues to do with continuing health care in the community in Telford and Wrekin, and about how that health funding integrates with the work that the local authority is doing.

It is pretty much acknowledged, across the political divide, that Telford and Wrekin council is a good unitary authority. It performs well and is working hard to ensure that it protects local residents as we move through a period of budget restraint and cuts to services. That is difficult and tough for the local authority and it has a major impact on our community. The way we integrate health services with the ongoing provision of front-line social care services is important.

The council is undertaking a consultation on its budget. Real pressure is emanating from Telford and Wrekin clinical commissioning group’s stance on funding continuing health care cases in the town. Some 50% of the council’s revenue budget—the money it spends on day-to-day services, such as caring for the elderly, looking after children and taking care of the environment—comes from the Government, and in the last three years it has been cut by almost £29 million.

By the end of 2015-16, the cut in the council’s funding from the Government will have reached nearly £50 million. These are cuts to cash grants that the Government provide to the council. Clearly, if inflation is taken into account, the real-terms cuts are much greater. At the same time, the council is facing major challenges from the growing cost of caring for increasing numbers of vulnerable people in our community. The CCG has added to the financial pressure by shunting around £8.5 million of costs that it would previously have covered in respect of CHC cases to the local authority. That is being done by the CCG’s taking a much harder line in the assessment of CHC cases. That is impacting seriously on the council and its budget.

Today is about exploring what more we can do to integrate health funding with the work that the local authority is doing in its social care environment. To set this out fairly starkly, in 2009-10 the primary care trust spent some £13.9 million on CHC cases. In 2012-13, the equivalent body in Telford and Wrekin spent just £2.3 million directly on care packages for CHC. I acknowledge that the CCG has topped that money up this year, with an additional £2.4 million, but that is a one-off payment. There is concern that such an enormous reduction in funding for CHC cases is putting enormous pressure on the health service and on front-line integrated health and social care services.

The other important issue to consider is how the funding formula has been calculated in respect of the number of people receiving continuing health care

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funding in our community, in comparison with surrounding locations. As at 30 June last year, there were 19.4 people per 50,000 population in Telford and Wrekin receiving CHC funding; in Shropshire, the figure was 82.2 per 50,000 population. Considerably fewer people, proportionately, are receiving CHC funding in Telford and Wrekin, but I cannot for the life of me determine why. Some have said that it is because Shropshire has an older population and because its structure is different, but it might be imagined that, given the provision of community hospitals in other parts of Shropshire, the figure would be different and that Telford and Wrekin would be doing far better.

If Telford and Wrekin is compared with similar local authorities—what might be called its Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy neighbours—we see that we are struggling to match the numbers of people per 50,000 weighted population who are receiving continuing health care funding. For example, in Warrington the figure is 54.6, in Darlington it is 65.1 and in Stoke-on-Trent it is 48.4 of weighted population per eligible 50,000 people. I reiterate that the figure is 19.4 in Telford and Wrekin and I cannot understand why, in that context, so few people are receiving continuing health care funding. This places enormous pressure on the local authority. As people move out of hospital or into care, whether at home or in other settings, the council is having to step in and try to provide care and support that ought to be provided, in my view, by the health service.

Although I accept that the primary care trust, at one time, was generous in its CHC funding compared with national averages—I mentioned the historical figures—the position now seems to have reversed. As I said, the ratio of CHC cases per 50,000 population in Shropshire is almost four times higher than in Telford and Wrekin. The council has calculated that, if the CCG spent at the national average, it would need to spend in the region of £7.65 million. That is significantly different from our current funding profile. I am concerned that the formula is not working effectively for Telford and Wrekin—either that, or the assessment procedure is not being undertaken in the same way as in other areas of the country.

The Prime Minister made it clear in the Conservative manifesto for the last general election that health funding would be protected. I am concerned that costs are being shunted away out of the health service and on to local authorities. The real concern is that these hidden cuts within the health service are being fed through into the local authority sector, so that nobody notices. Well, I hope that after today people will notice. This dilemma will be faced by a range of local authorities that will increasingly have to pick up costs that would previously have been met by the health service.

The Minister is a good man with a good reputation for understanding how the health service works—understandably, given his background—and I am sure that he agrees with my opening remarks. We want to see better integration between the health service and social care, as provided by local authorities. That is what I am calling for today. I should like him to look at the formula for Telford and Wrekin overall, in terms of the work being done by the CCG, and at whether the assessment procedure operating in our area is correct and being applied effectively.

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The council is making a lot of savings. It has delivered more than £50 million of ongoing annual revenue savings, and it is considering proposals to cut the remaining £23.7 million that has to be saved over the next two years. Colleagues from mid-Wales will have seen the coverage in the Shropshire Star over the past few days on how the council is working extremely hard to identify where some of the cuts can take place. We have already seen significant cuts in the council’s back-office staff, and large numbers of people have left the structure of the local authority—1,000 posts at the council have been deleted or become subject to voluntary redundancy in recent years—so there has been a lot of work to try to pare back costs.

In the next two years, the council will endeavour to meet the Government’s proposal to freeze council tax too, because we are conscious of the big cost-of-living issues for ordinary people. That means that some of the cuts to front-line social care services will fall on the most vulnerable people in our community. If the continuing health care budget is not correct, and if the health funding that passes through, in partnership with local authorities, to care for the most vulnerable people in our community is not correct, we will have an even greater challenge in the long term.

We are trying to develop proposals to make savings at local authority level, but the Government need to reconsider the issue of continuing health care. I would like the Minister to address direct support for trying to achieve a fairer apportionment of CHC costs between the CCG and the council in future years. The council’s managing director has written formally to the CCG. I understand that, fortuitously, a meeting is taking place today to discuss some of the issues.

I am not pitching for large pots of new money. We just want a fair deal on what we are entitled to, and I hope that the Minister can reassure us today that he is aware of the issues and how important they are for health funding within our community. I also hope that he is aware of the pressure on Telford and Wrekin council, which I think he will agree is a good council that tries to do a good job and is trying to deliver on the Government’s commitments while ensuring that we provide care and support for some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

11.12 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr Daniel Poulter): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the third time, Mr Dobbin.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on securing today’s Westminster Hall debate, on his strong advocacy for the needs of his constituents and on his highlighting of the importance of political consensus on these issues. He is absolutely right to do so.

We know that the single biggest challenge facing our health services is how better to look after older people and people with long-term disabilities and how to provide dignity in the care of people as they grow older. The key to delivering better health services for that group—and for all patients, including those in the early years of life—is an increased focus on integration and more joined-up health care services. That is very much at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, and I hope

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my remarks will reassure him that it is very much the focus of the Government’s stewardship of the health care system.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a £3.8 billion integration fund has been set up that will, in the longer term, drive and improve joined-up services between local authorities and the NHS. For far too long, there has been too much silo working. Silo budgets have sometimes reinforced the silo working, and it is often patients who have fallen through the gaps and paid the price. That is why the Government are determined to fix the situation and ensure that, not just through the changes we are introducing in the Care Bill but through the integration fund, there will be greater synergy of joint commissioning and pooled budgets between local authorities and the NHS, where that is to the benefit of patients.

It was a pleasure for me to visit the Princess Royal hospital in November 2013 to see the birthing centre and the development of the new women and children’s centre. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the trust has benefited from some £35 million of external capital money to support its capital investment programme, including the development of the women and children’s centre, which is due to open in autumn 2014.

Before we proceed, there are two issues. First, there is the key issue of how the national funding formula is set. I reaffirm that throughout the NHS, including in Telford and Wrekin, there have been real-terms increases in NHS funding under this Government. Secondly, the local CCG has discretion on how it allocates its budget, so there is some local discretion, which probably goes to the heart of some of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Until recently, the funding allocation was set by the Department of Health, but under the new arrangements politics has been taken outside the setting of health care funding; NHS England now has direct responsibility for funding allocations. The NHS, through NHS England, relies on the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation, or ACRA, and its assessment of the expected need for health services to help set allocations for each area.

We were all pleased that, for the 2013-14 allocations, NHS England decided that following the ACRA recommendations exactly would lead to higher growth for areas with better health outcomes and possibly reduced budgets for areas with less good health outcomes. Given that, like NHS England, we are all concerned about reducing health inequalities, the important decision was made to maintain the substantial weighting in the formula for areas of deprivation and health care inequalities. The ACRA formula was not directly followed, an issue on which we have touched in previous Westminster Hall debates. NHS England’s thinking, in outline, was that the recommendations were inconsistent with the responsibility to reduce health inequalities. NHS England conducted a fundamental review that has informed the allocations.

On 17 December 2013, NHS England’s board met and agreed CCG planning guidance and allocations for 2014-15, which will help commissioners to commission services for the benefit of local populations. The Government have protected the overall health budget,

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and NHS England has ensured that every CCG in England will continue to benefit from at least stable real-terms funding for the next two years.

The Government’s mandate for NHS England makes it clear that we expect it to place equal access for equal need at the heart of its approach to allocations; to consider health inequalities; to ensure a transparent process; and to ensure that changes to allocations do not destabilise local health care economies. A rapid change to or endorsement of the ACRA recommendations would have led to mass destabilisation of local health care economies. NHS England was mindful of that, and of the need to prioritise funding for areas of deprivation, in its allocations.

The 2014-15 allocation for Telford and Wrekin CCG will be almost £187.8 million—the per capita allocation is £1,058 a head, about the same as my constituents receive in Suffolk. That is a cash increase of 2.14% on the funding that the CCG received this year. The CCG will also receive a 1.7% increase on its allocation for 2015-16, which means that its funding will go up to almost £191 million. Additionally, NHS England has announced that the Shropshire and Staffordshire area team will receive a 2.38% rise in primary care funding in 2014-15 to almost £342 million and a further 1.8% increase in 2015-16 to more than £348 million. Those increases are higher than average, which reflects the historical underfunding in those areas against the primary care funding formula adopted by NHS England. I hope that is some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman that, in a general sense, increased funding is coming to his part of the country.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have also provided £221 million in additional funding to the NHS to help cope with winter pressures this year so that patients get the treatment they deserve. Winter is a challenging time for all health care services, and it is right that we have put in place additional money for the NHS. The local health economy has received £4 million in additional funding, of which £1.2 million will be directly invested in Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust to staff all escalation areas.

The trust has also outsourced a proportion of day surgery to the Nuffield hospital to protect elective activity, should that be necessary at times of high demand during the winter. The remaining £2.8 million is being used to improve unscheduled care capacity and flow outside the hospital. An additional 69 beds have been sourced outside the trust, including intermediate care, care home and specialist dementia beds.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the winter pressures money is being used to fund intermediate care beds and the focus on rapid discharge, not only in Telford and Wrekin, but nationally to some extent. That benefits not only the NHS, but local authorities, and it is part of the drive to achieve more integrated and joined-up health and social care.

If an old person can be promptly discharged home with the right care package, it is important that that happens; that is better for the person and the care they receive, but also better for the NHS’s financial settlement. To put it crudely, stuffing beds with patients does not make good financial sense, and it is not good for patients, who would much rather be at home in their communities. I am pleased that the money is going towards making that possible in the hon. Gentleman’s area.

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David Wright: I absolutely agree with everything the Minister says—it is basic common sense. Although I am glad to hear him say it, and it is really positive, it would be helpful if he could address one concern, although I am not necessarily suggesting he will have an answer today.

I accept that we want to get people out of hospital and into their homes if possible to ensure they are cared for effectively. However, he must admit that the figures I highlighted, as well as the local authority’s concerns, suggest there has been a fairly significant reduction in the CHC pot. Given the scale of the local authority’s budget, compared with the health service’s budget, that reduction has an enormous knock-on effect on the local authority. I hope the Minister will take some time to look at that.

Dr Poulter: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the issue. The point I was coming on to is that although the region’s funding allocation from the Government through NHS England is going up, the CCG obviously has some local discretion over how that allocation is spent, and that goes to the heart of the matter.

As has been highlighted, continuing health care funding is the crux of this matter, and it is relevant to mention NHS continuing health care, which is a package of ongoing care arranged and funded solely by the NHS where the individual is found to have a primary health need. The NHS provides that throughout the country, and it is vital that it does.

There is sometimes quite a blurred line between where NHS funding and care end and where local authority responsibility starts. The issue is not whose budget is involved or which budget the money comes from, and that is part of the reason why the Government set up the £3.8 billion integrated care fund. This is about joining up budgets. The hon. Gentleman and I, the doctors and nurses on the ground, and the local authority are interested in the person, rather than who pays for treatment. The fund is a recognition of that, and we are setting it up to drive forward joined-up working.

However, we have to look at where we are now and why we have come to the place the hon. Gentleman highlighted. He will be aware that audits were carried out in 2009-10 and 2010-11 of the then PCT’s accounts. It was decided that the continuing health care funding was not being allocated properly, appropriately or even, potentially, legally.

At that point, the PCT was putting a lot of additional money into continuing health care, but a similar approach was not being taken elsewhere in the country. The auditors therefore rightly took the view that funding had to be allocated in accordance with the correct public rules for spending money, including NHS money, and that if money was, potentially, being allocated in an illegal way, that needed to be addressed under the rules at that time.

David Wright rose

Dr Poulter: I absolutely accept—the hon. Gentleman may wish to elaborate on this in his intervention—that, fundamentally, this is not about rules, but about making sure we have a better service for people. That is what we need to focus on.

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David Wright: Yes, indeed, I do believe that. My concern is that the figures I highlighted suggest that, in comparison with similar and surrounding authorities, we are doing very badly per head of population in terms of the assessment process for qualification for continuing health care. That suggests to me that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and that the assessment procedure is being used to ensure that the figures are kept down.

I am concerned that some people with care needs in the community will lose out—as the Minister rightly said, this is not about structures and silos in the health service, but about individuals and their families in the community who are trying to cope.

Dr Poulter: The hon. Gentleman is right. In terms of the per capita spend in CCG allocations, Suffolk similarly has large towns with very rural surrounding areas, and the CCG in the hon. Gentleman’s area has a fairly similar allocation to the one I represent.

There is also an issue about how the money given to CCGs is spent. In a knee-jerk reaction, perhaps, to the auditors’ findings and the fact that the spend was not allocated appropriately, Telford and Wrekin went from being almost one of the highest spenders on continuing health care to being one of the lowest, and that is the crux of the problem. That is down to decisions by the CCG, or the PCT as it was, about how to allocate the budget given to it.

If, in 2009, 2010 and 2011, the PCT was picking up funding responsibilities that should perhaps have been the local authority’s, but then, in response to the audit, changed the amount it allocated to continuing health care, that could clearly have a destabilising effect on the local authority. However, the PCT and then the CCG have done everything they can to mitigate that, and they have given the local authority discretionary funding.

In particular, just over £3 million has gone to the local authority thanks to the fund set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) to facilitate exactly that kind of activity. At its own discretion, the CCG has also given the council £2.4 million on top of that, over and above what the council expected to receive. The CCG has therefore acknowledged and accepted that, in reacting to the auditors, there was perhaps an over-reaction, and it has now righted that by giving the local authority some discretionary additional funding.

That does not detract from the overriding point that, generally throughout the country, and particularly in Telford and Wrekin, we need to see increased emphasis on integration and joined-up care. It is in no one’s interests to have such discussions about funding, which waste a lot of time and effort on the part of the local authority and the CCG. If we can drive more joined-up working, more joint commissioning and more pooled budgets, where appropriate, as the Government will be doing through the Care Bill and the integration fund, the number of these turf wars will be reduced, because the emphasis will be on the patient, rather than the budgetary silo. That must be the right way forward.

I am sorry that, in this instance, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and local authority have perhaps been caught up in errors made by the former PCT, although I am pleased the CCG is doing all it can to redress the

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balance by giving the local authority discretionary additional funding. I hope working relationships will improve and that, as we move forward, with further emphasis centrally on integrated health care and joined-up budgets, we will see greater improvements to the local health care economy and, more importantly, continuing improvements to patient care locally. If the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss the matter further or to meet me, I will be happy to do so.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Financial Sustainability (Local Government)

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): This debate is about sustainable local authority funding. It is my contention that it is neither sustainable nor local, and it certainly does not confer any authority. I will focus on our cities, not because I want to set up an argument between urban and rural areas, but because what is bad for our cities is bad for our urban areas. If our cities do not do well, rural areas will suffer.

Our cities do not reflect the national economy; they are the national economy. If our cities do not do well, the country will do not well. If we do not generate growth, the rest of the country will suffer, and one certainly does not generate growth by throttling one’s engine. Our cities are competing not with rural areas, but with other cities internationally. Cities are a complex system, even though Whitehall treats them as though they are only complicated. Jet engines are complicated; they are predictable and have predictable outcomes. Cities are complex; their outcomes cannot be predicted, and the players are not always rational. Above all, cities are systems that can come up with their own ideas and solutions to problems, if given permission to do so.

England is the most centralised country in the world—something that holds back our cities, stymies growth and productivity and produces poor value for our public services. Our cities were once great—Birmingham MPs will certainly be aware of that—but their power has continuously reduced since the 19th century and there has been a shift toward the centre. The most radical power shift probably came in the 1980s, when rate capping and financial penalties were introduced. Then, in 1986, the Greater London council and the six metropolitan counties covering England’s largest cities were abolished.

It is worth looking at the continent, where things are different.

“Every city outside the capital in Germany has GDP per capita above the national average, they are dragging the national average up. In Italy it’s six out of the eight, in France all are at or above the national average. We are the only country in Western Europe where, apart from Bristol, the level of the eight cities are some way below the national average and therefore are bringing down the national average of GDP per capita.”

2.33 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.48 pm

On resuming

Ms Stuart: Those were not my words—the comparison of England with France, Italy and Germany —but the words of the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibility for cities.

Previously, the Labour Government embraced devolution. We devolved power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we restored London’s city-wide government in 2000, led by a directly elected executive

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Mayor. England outside the capital, however, remains unfinished business. It is a shame that the Government imposed police and crime commissioners, but presented us with a rather botched referendum on directly elected mayors in some of our cities.

I regret that our major cities do not have directly elected mayors, because such leaders need the support of the whole electorate and not only a small cabal of their own councillors. They need authority. To be frank, the names of the leaders of the core cities ought to be rolling off the tongue in the same way as we can name Cabinet Ministers, but they do not. Running a city the size of Birmingham is probably a far more difficult task than many a Cabinet post, yet we do not give those leaders the political authority that they ought to have.

A small way to remedy the situation, citing the noble Lord Whitby of Harborne as a precedent, might be for retiring council leaders to join the House of Lords, giving some representation for local government. I am not sure that the Mayor of London would be terribly keen on a place in the House of Lords after he finishes his term, but it is worth a try.

My second contention is that local government funding is not actually local. To quote again from the cities Minister:

“At the root of the problem is a lack of local control over the cities’ own affairs and spending”.

When talking about taking up his post, he said that he had to do two things, the first of which was

“to persuade the Cabinet to accept the principle to have licensed exceptions to national policy”,

so that cities could come up with their own way of dealing with things. If I remember rightly, in questions to the Deputy Prime Minister today, a number of Members also suggested that the presumption about deviations from national strategy should be that they were allowed, rather than having to prove the case.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and making such excellent points. In response to my recent debate on local government finance hold-backs, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who will respond to this debate, claimed to be freeing local authorities to stand on their own two feet. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy to claim to be freeing up our great cities when actually the Government are taking key powers into Whitehall, such as on inward investment, housing, skills, economic development and European funding?

Ms Stuart: Indeed, and I shall make that case with regard to Birmingham. Presumably, a true liberal regards the freedom to fail as a freedom, and that is one of the freedoms that our cities have been given.

The cities Minister also said:

“The second thing is to liberate from the central government barons funding that can be better spent locally.”

I cannot improve on his observation. Quite a number of colleagues will agree, in different ways, that the current funding structure is not sustainable. If there were some great vision of how our cities can succeed, we could

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engage with that, but what is happening at the moment is that, to quote Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham city council:

“Politicians in Westminster are systematically dismantling services that maintain the very fabric of culture and community here.”

Birmingham’s total budget for 2013-14 was £3.4 billion. That sum has to cover a whole number of things that the council must do and a number of things that the council might do. The money comes from a variety of sources, and the structure of the system is virtually impossible to explain to our voters.

I am wary of quoting figures, for two reasons. One is that we throw the words “millions” and “billions” around as if the difference is a change of just one letter. I have always found it useful to remind myself that 1 million seconds is 11 and a half days, whereas 1 billion seconds is 31.7 years. There is a massive difference. The second reason is that whenever I think I have a handle on the cuts, things change. I turned on the television yesterday and found that the Chancellor was in the west midlands announcing another £25 billion of cuts. I am not entirely sure where they will come from.

The latest figure for Birmingham is that we need to find savings totalling just under £840 million between 2010 and 2018, including £120 million of cuts in the financial year 2014-15.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a powerful case for maintaining local government funding across the nation—not just in cities, but everywhere else—but I have one question. Those cuts are necessary because of the financial situation that the Government found themselves in three years ago. Would she prefer savings to come from local government or national Government, and, if the latter, in what areas?

Ms Stuart: That is a fair point, but as I will come to later, by the end of this Parliament local government will have taken 33% of the cuts, whereas Whitehall will have taken 12%. I will also suggest some ideas that would not be robbing Peter to pay Paul but would instead give greater liberty, in a managed way, to our cities to survive. At the moment, those areas in the greatest need are being cut most.

This might sound slightly boring, but let us look at the figures per dwelling. In Birmingham in 2014-15, using the Government’s preferred measure—that of spending power—we will lose £145.59 per dwelling, a cut of 5.3%. The national average is £71.58. Leafy Wokingham—Wokingham is not popular in my constituency because of the comparison, although one of my local councillors comes from there and takes slight umbrage that we keep quoting it—gets an increase in funding of £5.20, or 0.3%. In 2015-16 it will be even worse: Birmingham will lose 5.6% and Wokingham will have an increase of 3%. There is a whole list of shires and counties that are also getting an increase. At every turn, the combination of grant reduction and budget pressures widens to the point where—let us be clear on this—it is no longer a question of cutting services: some services simply will not be delivered.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): My hon. Friend is setting out an important case. Does she agree that the issue is not just the impact of cuts on

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local authority spending, but the cumulative impact when taken along with welfare reforms, which tend to hit our most deprived cities the hardest? That combination is having a detrimental impact on local economies.

Ms Stuart: Absolutely. I have a couple of specific questions for the Minister that will help me outline how we can minimise further cuts.

In answer to a question on 18 December, the Minister suggested that Birmingham should

“be more efficient with its back office, and look at how to use its reserves to invest for the future.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 750.]

I had a chat with people at Birmingham city council about how much it spends on its back office services. It has already made some cuts to them, and will go on to make some of the largest single cuts in 2014-15. However, even if Birmingham were to remove its back office services entirely, it could not meet the required cuts for 2014-15, let alone those for 2015-16.

That puts me in a rather unusual position, in that I am at one with the noble Lord Heseltine. When he addressed the 200th anniversary dinner of the Birmingham chamber of commerce in April 2013, he called for no less than a “peasants’ revolt”, and I agree that that is what is needed. His definition of a peasants’ revolt was a reallocation of power back to the people who created the wealth in this country in the first place.

For that, we require three elements. The first is more control over the money received from central Government and—this is an important point—a time scale that allows for proper planning. At the moment, cuts are being imposed so quickly that local authorities, whether in cities or rural areas, have not had the time to reflect properly on how best to reorganise. In some areas, we even find confusion over which duties are statutory, because some statutory functions have been farmed out—councils have found that when they cancel the contracts, they are in breach of their statutory duties. The second element is greater freedom over the money raised locally, and the third is the means to benefit financially from investments and savings made.

However, I do not believe that that will be sufficient. Something far more radical is required. Relying on council tax to raise revenue will help only affluent areas. Capping via referendum and the utterly out-of-date banding system mean that, for authorities that rely heavily on central Government grants, relying on council tax to raise revenue just makes the situation worse. We need a more radical idea. We could raise a local tax or look at a system of apportionment of locally raised VAT to replace the grant. At this stage, I am simply looking for the Minister to acknowledge that if he continues on the current trajectory, some of our cities will go to the wall. I do not say that to be dramatic; the statement is borne out if we look at the figures.

I also have a number of specific questions. First, on the better care fund, am I right to assume that, although NHS transfers across clinical commissioning groups, which start in 2015-16, will not overtly redistribute funds from rural to urban areas, they will end up doing so in practice, given the age profile of rural areas? The better care fund is not new money, but a kind of

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redistribution. In Birmingham, almost 46% of the population is under the age of 30, compared with 36.8% in England as a whole. In contrast, Birmingham’s over-65s represent 12.9% of the population, compared with 16.9% in England as a whole. If we focus on the older population, therefore, we will be disproportionately hit.

The second question is about education. Education funding was not part of the local government finance settlement, because it comes mainly through the ring-fenced dedicated schools grant. However, the current formula is historic, and a consultation is going on. When can we expect the result? Will it include a minimum funding guarantee that protects against losses at a per-pupil level? Next year will be a crunch year for our cities and local authorities. Unless they have some indication of how not just the known grants, but the ones that underpin them, will play out, they will not be able to plan.

That takes me to my final observation. The Local Government Association already says some councils are not viable. How many councils does the Minister think are in that category? Does he agree with the work done by the Mayor of London, which suggests we should hand tax-raising powers to England’s largest cities? Will he give English cities control of the revenues from all property taxes, such as stamp duty, council tax, land tax and business rates? One thing is for sure: they will manage those funds differently and, I would contend, better. Will he also lift the cap on local government capital borrowing? I am not for one moment saying that local authorities do not need renewing or that some of the funding structures do not need to be looked at. However, that needs to be done in a planned and sustainable way that allows authorities to respond positively.

Finally, I invite the Minister to come to Birmingham, because 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Joe Chamberlain—the man who introduced the concept of good governance into our cities. If we do sit down and talk together about some of these structures, I hope we can come up with a way of maintaining the strength of our cities, rather than marking the 100th anniversary of Joe Chamberlain’s death by killing our cities with 1,000 cuts.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the two Front Benchers at 3.55 pm, which will give them 10 minutes each to sum up. I think six people want to speak, and while I do not intend to impose a time limit, we should be able to get everyone in if Members keep their contributions to less than 10 minutes.

3.2 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on calling this timely debate and on introducing it in a constructive fashion. However, I do not share her enthusiasm for elected mayors, so I must demur on that point.

Several people in the room have probably sat on both sides of the political fence that divides local government from central Government, so they will be familiar with the scenario many of us have had visited on us: we listen to a statement about the local government finance

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settlement and think, “That’s not so bad,” but when we talk to our borough treasurer, we find that the world has more or less fallen in. I am very familiar with that scenario because my first experience of Whitehall involved coming down to Richmond house to see the now Lord Boateng, who was a Minister at the time. I was castigated on behalf of Sefton council because he felt we had quite enough money to deal with our problems, while we felt the money he was giving us fell significantly short of what he should have given us.

That scenario is fairly familiar, and it is part of a very dishonest conversation that has taken place decade after decade between local authorities and central Government. It is a dishonest conversation about local resources, central resources and their effect on services. All Governments say that the funding settlement is fair and generous in the circumstances and that councils surely have sufficient funding to get by. If Ministers need a further defence, they will point to occasional—or perhaps less than occasional—instances of local authority inefficiency or profligacy. They will then point to some local authority—normally one from their own political party—that does things particularly well and set it up as an exemplar for all others to follow.

Local authorities, in turn, talk about savage reductions, service impairment and the new and sometimes unnecessary burdens that have been imposed on them, but not financed, by central Government. Characteristically, they will accuse the Government of deceitful sleights of hand, favouritism and formula rigging. I think Members will acknowledge—particularly those who have sat on both sides of the fence—that those involved put their side of the case in a very one-sided way.

The past few years have been no exception. It helps local authorities that are making their case to their local populations to blame the Government for the totality of their woes, whether those result from demographic factors or unaddressed issues from years gone by. Most local authorities worth their salt big up the cuts, blame all the financial pressures they face on central Government and try as far as possible to ignore their own failings.

Equally, central Government help themselves by confusing the grant regime, changing the names of the grant from year to year—from revenue support grant, to formula grant, to spending power or whatever—and presenting their case in the best possible way. The Minister and I have had many interesting discussions about whether to describe a local authority’s situation in terms of a fall in its spending power or a fall in its grant. I prefer the latter; he prefers the former.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about authorities bigging up the cuts, but, taking into account all the adjustments he has just spoken of, Sheffield will, by 2015-16, have seen a 50% reduction in funding since 2010. That is not bigging up the cuts; it is the absolute fact. Sheffield cannot go on with that level of cuts to its funding base.

John Pugh: I have no experience of Sheffield, but I have experience of my own local authority, and at times it rolls up many years’ cuts into one total figure, as if those cuts were imposed in one particular year. That is par for the course. Equally, central Government will

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find obvious scapegoats and point to the things such as assets and reserves—they are sometimes usable, but sometimes not—as though they can be regularly tapped.

Such things are all part of the toolkit or the argument, and most people are fairly familiar with them. The public tend not to pay a lot of attention to the debate, and they almost split the difference in many cases, because they are not certain who is telling the truth. They do get exercised when council tax goes up and certainly when services they are particularly enamoured of disappear, but, by and large, they are fairly agnostic on this issue, and they do not always know who should be blamed.

However, the game has now got deadly serious. What has been a familiar scenario over many years is now having a more severe effect. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston suggested, the sustainability of local services and, in some cases, local councils appears to be at stake—there is a fair case to be made in that respect. If we cut through what I described as the usual dishonest conversation, there are four absolutely indisputable facts.

First, in terms of deficit reduction, councils have been hit first—that is not particularly helpful, because they have to work within annual budgets and cannot make plans over two or three years—and they have been hit hardest, as has already been said. The second fact is that the reduction in central Government expenditure is considerable, and it may end up being something like £20 billion.

Thirdly, it is also an indisputable fact that the funding reduction for local authorities is proportionally greater in the poor areas and particularly the metropolitan districts. I take that as an unarguable fact, which we can all acknowledge around the room, although we may want to explain it in different ways. That fact is well documented, and it is what the Rowntree research, the Institute for Public Policy research, the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission report “Tough Times” all say. It is an indisputable fact.

Clearly, one element in it was the initial loss of area-based grants. We could argue that that happened because the previous Government were looking after the local authorities that were most of their persuasion. However, the fall in the less affluent areas, if I can put it like that, is in no way compensated for in its totality by city deals or regional growth funds. Those are often talked of as a compensating factor, but they must be looked at in terms of the general decline in regeneration funding in those areas as a whole. Taking the totality of the issues, I would be prepared to—although I will not—argue that case at length. There is nothing to suggest that things are otherwise; the proportionate reduction in poorer areas is greater.

It would be inappropriate for the Minister to respond, as often happens in parliamentary debates, by saying that none the less Birmingham gets so much per head, as opposed to some other area that he wants to nominate. I assume that we all buy into the assumption that grant support for local authorities must be based in some way on need. Therefore we would expect per capita spending in Liverpool, for example, to be greater than per capita spending in Surrey, and so on.

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Mr Gray: Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for maintaining spending on local government. I disagree with his thesis that cuts are deeper in urban areas than rural areas, but let us leave that on one side for a moment. If I am right in guessing that the hon. Gentleman is saying that spending must be maintained at local government level, will he, a Liberal Democrat, tell us which central Government budgets he would like cut so that the local government settlement could be increased?

John Pugh: I am not necessarily making a case for increasing the local authority settlement. I am mainly making a fair case for different distribution, and for spreading it over more years, to enable local authorities to make the appropriate adjustments.

My fourth point, which has not been stressed in the debate so far, is that local authority spending is now significantly unbalanced. Because of the nature of the cuts, local authorities have had to concentrate on their statutory services, which primarily means social services. Most ordinary punters and electors do not ordinarily interact with social services. That is a democratic problem as well as a financial one. We have all heard of the graph of doom and the view that some local authorities will end up spending on nothing but social services. If that happens, neither electors nor the authorities will welcome it.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston is right about the situation. She did not say that it was not sustainable; she said that the trajectory we are on is not sustainable, and I agree. Various things could be done about it, and she suggested some. I shall not cover the same ground that she did. We can spread good practice and develop community budgets—the Select Committee did some work on that. We can talk about possible savings from the integration of health and social care, which would be good, or about possible benefits from the repatriation of rates, and accompanying incentives.

We can talk about things on a grand scale, as the Local Government Association is doing at the moment with the Rewiring Public Services campaign, which would also be good. All those ideas are ways forward, but they will not work at all unless we sensibly and intelligently—starting in this Chamber—stop the dishonest conversation and look at the facts for what they are. If we concentrate on formulae designed to present the Government’s or a local authority’s case polemically in a particular way, we will never get central and local government speaking the same language, or succeed in making local authorities sustainable as a result.

3.13 pm

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing today’s debate.

I was disappointed at the contempt with which the Minister dealt with my question to him in response to the statement on the local government finance settlement before Christmas. Liverpool’s settlement is so dire that I offered personally to fund two rail tickets for him and the Secretary of State, so they could visit my city and

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look at the books. If they truly believe that Liverpool has not done everything they say a responsible council should do to mitigate the cuts, surely the Minister should have bitten my hand off and accepted the offer. It is still open—to avoid confusion, I want to make it clear that it would not cost taxpayers a penny: I would fund it from my own pocket—so perhaps the Minister will respond.

The cuts to Liverpool’s funding are deadly serious. They deserve not light-heartedness or levity, but sombre deliberation and scrutiny. That is why I felt so strongly about the lack of an adequate response from the Minister in December. Far from being a good news story for local government, as he injudiciously claimed, his statement was a disaster for local government. He also argued that the cuts he announced were fair to all parts of the country. However, far from that being the case, they disproportionately hit core city regions—those least able to absorb their severity and those with lower levels of gross domestic product.

I want to concentrate on what that so-called good news day for local government meant for Liverpool. Unsurprisingly, but none the less shockingly, Liverpool city council was once again hit hardest. The latest cut of 5.5% will have a devastating impact on a city that is working tirelessly to pull itself up by its own economic bootstraps. Even the Prime Minister has recognised the work that Liverpool has done to cut out waste and restructure its services.

Indeed, despite the latest savage cuts, Liverpool’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive and kicking, and in a few months we will host the international festival for business on behalf of the UK. Hundreds of thousands of businessmen and women will once again be able to see our city and feel the warmth of our welcome. That will happen despite what the Government are doing to us, but our resilience is legendary. It is crucial to understand that Liverpool, like all the core cities, is asking not for handouts but for a fair local government settlement, so that when the Government wield their axe it will not be hit disproportionately.

Mr Gray: I have great sympathy when the hon. Gentleman speaks up for his wonderful city, but I feel uneasy about the way the debate is centred on how the cuts focus on poor areas and cities. Leafy, Conservative Wiltshire this year received 18.2% cuts; next year it will have 26.8% cuts; the year after that they will be 7%. We are going from a revenue support grant of £76 million down to one of £45 million. That is a great deal deeper than Liverpool’s.

Steve Rotheram: That is absolute nonsense. It is possible to pick individual statistics, but cumulatively the cuts and other Government policies have a disproportionate effect on my city. It is a greater effect than the hon. Gentleman could ever understand.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I do not know the source of the evidence cited by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), but I think the Audit Commission showed that one in 10 of the best-off areas suffer only a fraction of the cuts being suffered by the poorest 20% of areas in the country. Has my hon. Friend seen that evidence?

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Steve Rotheram: I have, and I mean to refer to it later. I also have further evidence about how badly the Government have treated Liverpool. I understand what the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) said about years of dishonest argument, but that is not what we are talking about. At times that dishonest argument was about some authorities that thought they should get a greater increase than other authorities. We are now talking about savage cuts, not increases.

Not only is Liverpool’s cut the deepest; there are 38 other areas that will receive either a flat settlement or an increase in funding. How can that be fair? What happened to the Chancellor’s claim that he would not balance the budget on the backs of those in most need, or to the Government mantra that we are all in this together? Before some hon. Member intervenes with the inevitable argument that Liverpool will still receive above the national rate per capita, let me point out that the very fact that the city is struggling to meet its statutory requirements as a local authority gives credibility to the argument that further consideration of the funding formula is necessary to reflect socio-economic and multiple deprivation indices.

Perhaps the best description of the consequences for Liverpool of Ministers’ actions was from the shadow Health Secretary when he suggested:

“The Government do not understand, or they do not care, and they just rip up the fabric of an entire city. It is disgraceful.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 765.]

I could not have put it any better myself: it is managed decline, based on an inequitable formula that, at its core, is predicated on an ideological assault on the cities that no longer offer the Tories or Lib Dems any form of electoral support. It is not fair and it is not good news for local government.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I wish, in a way, that the debate had followed the lines laid out by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) in an admirably even-handed and non-partisan way. Is it not true, as a matter of historical fact, that under the previous Government, heat maps were generated that specifically tied public funding to areas of actual and potential Labour support? That has been in the newspapers. We know that it is a well established fact, which has been well attested from other grounds. Should the hon. Gentleman not be properly recognising that in his remarks?

Steve Rotheram: Deprivation has always been recognised on heat maps and areas of the country are well known in that regard. I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. If he is saying that money in the formula was given to those areas of greatest need, and that showed up on a heat map, yes, that is true, and quite rightly so—it should have been.

Some might argue that it is simply coincidental that Labour-controlled Liverpool, Labour-controlled Manchester, Labour-controlled Birmingham, Labour-controlled Sheffield, Labour-controlled Newcastle and so on are the hardest-hit councils, with, in some cases, cuts to their budgets of more than 50% over the life of this Parliament, while councils that benefit most are

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well-off, Tory-controlled authorities. Some might suggest that that is just a coincidence, but I do not buy that. The formula was designed to do exactly that.

Jesse Norman: Let me put on the record that the heat maps are not reflective of imbalances in deprivation funding at all. Let us take an example that is completely open and known to everyone, which is the scandal of the private finance initiative, in which 106 new hospitals were built at enormous cost. The vast preponderance of them were built around a model of funding that was for very large outpatient hospitals in major cities, and it was deliberately targeted on those cities. The result has been, at a time when health care has been moving to a much more localised, technology-enabled solution, a disaster for health care. We will find that these great hospitals, including the new one being built in Liverpool, struggle as a result.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be kept short.

Steve Rotheram: It absolutely beggars belief that individual Members of Parliament do not understand that every area is different. Areas that had infrastructure from Victorian times, hospitals that were literally falling apart and schools that leaked, needed intervention at that time—not in 15 or 20 years, when the country might well have been able to afford it. Intervention was needed.

I am no great fan of PFI, by the way, but according to the latest figures the Chancellor is signing off as many PFI contracts, worth as much, as the previous Labour Government did. Members really cannot have it both ways—be anti-PFI while not even standing up to their own Chancellor, who is signing off these huge contracts, including the one for Liverpool.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said:

“Tough times do indeed require tough decisions”—

nobody would argue against that—

“but this Government, as they have shown time and again, from the bedroom tax to the top rate of tax and local government funding, take most from those who have least. That is unfair and unjust.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 746.]

A cumulative 52% cut to Liverpool city council will mean not only that it has to make staff redundant, which means even more human misery and an even higher benefit bill, but, as I have said, that it may not even be able to fulfil the requirement to deliver statutory services to the level that it has to date. In other words, keeping our libraries open will be virtually impossible. Services for the young and old will be decimated. Children’s centres will be affected. Street lights and roads will not be repaired at the same rate, and the legacy of our year as European capital of culture will be damaged, possibly beyond repair.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the whole debate is the fact that decisions continue to be made, by a Minister and his boss in a cold and calculated manner, that I know will detrimentally affect Liverpool’s history, heritage and traditions and adversely affect every man, woman and child in our city.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): The number of Members standing to speak seems to keep increasing, so Members will have to keep their contributions shorter if we are to accommodate them all. I call Jesse Norman.