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22 Feb 1996 : Column WA83

Written Answers

Thursday, 22nd February 1996.

Questions of Procedure for Ministers

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they expect to issue an amended version of Questions of Procedure for Ministers, incorporating the proposed amendments set out in Annex A of the Government's response to the Nolan Report, reinforcing the principle that "Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament".

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): As my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made clear in the other place on 2 November 1995 (Official Report, columns 456-7) the Government have already amended Questions of Procedure for Ministers in line with the Government's response to the Nolan Report by issuing a new paragraph 1 which includes the statement that "Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament and the public and should correct any inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity".

Scott Report

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they accept the view of Lord Justice Scott (Scott Report vol. IV p. 1802, Section K5.8) that "the withholding of information by an accountable Minister should never be based on reasons of convenience or for the avoidance of political embarrassment, but should always require special and carefully considered justification".

The Lord Privy Seal: Yes. Decisions to withhold or delay the release of information are taken after careful assessment of the various considerations involved.

NHS Wheelchair Service

Baroness Masham of Ilton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they expect to be able to announce a decision on the proposal to introduce a voucher scheme for people using the NHS wheelchair service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): We have considered carefully the findings of the working group set up by the Department of Health to look at the feasibility of introducing such a scheme and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Bowis) will be making a full announcement about this tomorrow at 11a.m. Copies of the relevant papers will be available in the Printed Paper Office and the Library.

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Bank of England Meetings: Minutes

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why there is a gap of six weeks between the holding of monthly monetary meetings between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England and the publication of the Minutes of such meetings.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): The publication of the minutes of the monthly monetary meetings helps to increase accountability and improves the transparency of the policy process. As a result

UK monetary policy has become one of the most open in the world. Earlier publication of the minutes would complicate the short-term conduct of policy.

Pension Splitting on Divorce: Proposal

Viscount Ullswater asked Her Majesty's Government:

    If they have considered the case for pension splitting on divorce following the undertaking given in Committee stage of the Family Law Bill [H.L.], and if so what action they propose to take.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The Government have considered the matter very carefully. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, herself has acknowledged her amendments leave a number of important issues unresolved. Earlier reports on the issue (by the Pensions Management Institute, Law Society, Goode Committee) acknowledged the complexity.

Pension splitting raises many matters both in principle and as to how it might be achieved in practice. It raises serious questions concerning equity, complexity and cost which have to be balanced against any perceived advantages. These are not simply matters of detail.

The Government believe that to act hastily now could result in an unworkable and impractical scheme which may have as yet unforeseen and undesirable results. We have thus concluded that legislating in the Family Law Bill would be premature.

The Government are fully prepared to consider all the issues and options, in an open minded way, with all parties. We therefore intend to start work immediately on a Green Paper with a view to publish in the Summer.

Consideration needs to be given to matters like the status an ex-spouse would have within the scheme compared to existing categories of member and beneficiaries; the types of benefit rights that could be given to ex-spouses of scheme members; the way in which an ex-spouse would be accommodated within the rules governing the tax approval status of pension schemes. There are also wider questions as to the implications for taxation, pensions, trust, inheritance and intestacy law and the potential consequences for second families.

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Then there is the need to explore and consult on the costs to all involved--schemes (particularly unfunded schemes, if ex-spouses of members could transfer out their share of the members' pension), employers, employees and their families. Additionally there is the need to consider the potentially very significant Exchequer implications from tax losses if divorced couples were to offset the split pension against two personal tax allowances, and the implications for married couples who, without an extension of similar tax treatment, might consider their position to be inequitable.

Any consideration of pension splitting must acknowledge the practical implications for all who would be affected. For example questions arise as to how to handle the unfunded State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (SERPS) and its contracted out equivalent, the Guaranteed Minimum Pension (GMP). The PMI report admitted this was an extremely difficult issue.

Consideration also needs to be given as to how any move to introduce pension splitting would fit in with the arrangements being put in place following last year's Pensions Act. Those measures will have an impact on the treatment of pensions when people divorce and will be of substantial benefit to divorcing couples.

Armed Forces Review: Report

Lord Brougham and Vaux asked the Secretary of State for Defence:

    What further progress has been made on the Independent Review of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): The independent review has been concluded and a copy of Mr. Dart's report has been made available in the Library of the House. We will now carefully consider Mr. Dart's recommendations with a view to formulating an implementation plan in the near future. Mr. Dart's stated aim was to ensure that NAAFI continue to provide a first-class service to our armed forces and the framework he provides in his report should ensure that NAAFI has every opportunity to do so.

Russian Federation:Council of Europe Membership

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the Written Answer given by Baroness Chalker of Wallasey of 12 February 1996 (WA 35), which of the specific points contained in the Parliamentary Assembly's opinion about the

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    accession of the Russian Federation to the Council of Europe they do not wish to be construed as having endorsed.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): We have consistently expressed our concern at the growing list of conditions imposed by the Parliamentary Assembly on new member states. In monitoring Russia's (and others) compliance with commitments, we are sure that governments will wish to make a broad political assessment rather than take a detailed approach to these points. But as an illustration, and in Russia's case, for example, we would not wish to endorse the recommendation in paragraph 11 (iii) that an increase in the means and capabilities of the assembly be guaranteed in advance. Neither would we wish to endorse paragraph 10v of the Opinion to sign and ratify the Charter on Local Self-Government nor the Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (we currently reserve our position on both).

Prevention of Terrorism Legislation: Report

Lord Carr of Hadley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they intend to publish the report from Mr. J. J. Rowe QC on the Operation in 1995 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 and what conclusions they have reached on the future of the Act.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My right honourable friend has now considered Mr. Rowe's report, which he has today placed in the Library and has decided to accept his recommendation that the legislation should be renewed in its entirety for a further 12 months. A draft order to give effect to that is today being laid before the House.

National Poisons Unit

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    To what extent they have funded the National Poisons Unit for research into the acute and chronic effects of exposure to organophosphates, and whether there are any published results.

Lord Lucas: The National Poisons Unit, London, has been funded to a total of £28,337 by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) to conduct studies between 1991 and 1994 into the effects on human health from acute exposure to organophosphorus sheep dips. These studies were based on reports of ill-health received by the unit during that period. One report has been published on that work to date and is available free of charge from the VMD. I am arranging for a copy to be sent to the noble Countess.

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