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Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, on the question of sentencing, does my noble friend agree that what is so offensive is the organised begging? There are some racketeers out there making large sums of money. Does my noble friend agree that if there is to be legislation on sentencing, first, we ought to get a firm grip on the extent to which we deal with organised begging?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is obviously an operational matter for the police. They need to judge the circumstances. Clearly, there is organised begging; occasionally organised criminal groups beg. However, in those circumstances I have little doubt that the police, with the active support of
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, is the Minister confident that the new system of voucher support for asylum seekers, for which the Home Office is responsible, as from today, is sufficiently established and sufficiently robust to eliminate the need for asylum seekers to beg?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the new national asylum seeker support scheme is robust. I am convinced that it will be effective. I have no doubt that the company that is contracted to operate it will do an extremely good job in distributing the vouchers. It must be our hope and our wish that this situation does not lead to begging. As I have explained previously, my honourable friend in another place is considering that issue. We may well need to give it some further consideration. No doubt our action will be firm and swift.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, bearing in mind the reference to incorrigible rogues and my noble friend's reference to organised crime, I inform my noble friend that I received a begging letter from the Conservative Party this morning which I found unacceptable.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): No, my Lords. It is unfortunate that the Australian Government have decided to end this long-standing agreement, which goes back to 1953, but our priority is to help pensioners in the United Kingdom, particularly those who are less well off.
Baroness Fookes: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer, which was, perhaps, predictable. That stark remark will bring little comfort to the many pensioners living in countries where their pensions are frozen. Is it not time that this long-standing injustice, which brings hardship to so many people, was remedied?
Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, will my noble friend at least think very hard about this issue? I remember dealing with this matter in Cabinet some years ago. There was never any question but that, morally, our fellow citizens who worked for us here in Britain and who then migrated overseas were entitled to a pension by virtue of their paid-in contributions. We did not update the pension because of the chronic shortage of foreign exchange, but morally the case was clear. When we were controlling capital movement, when tourists could spend only £50 a year abroad, and when all kinds of restrictions faced us, we could not do it, but morally these people have a right to a pension. Will the Government fulfil that obligation at the earliest moment?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I do not share the views of my noble friend. Many of the pensioners currently in Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand went out to those countries during their working lives and have for many years contributed to the economies of the countries that they joined. The UK state pension is not a funded scheme but a pay-as-you-go scheme funded by current taxpayers. Given the priorities of government expenditure, I do not think that it is reasonable to ask UK taxpayers to fund the pensions of those currently living abroad who chose to live abroad and who, for a long time, have contributed to the economies of those countries.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the level of pension such people receive will be dependent on the amount of time they spent in this country? If they left during their working lives, the pension will be reduced. Does she not accept that these people paid national insurance contributions and taxes while they were working here? By going abroad, they have relieved the National Health Service of the burden of looking after them in old age. Does not the noble Baroness agree that it is disgraceful that this Government and previous governments have refused to pay these people the increases in their pensions?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: No, my Lords; again, I disagree. Most schemes were set up following the 1946 Act. Except for the 30 "unfrozen" countries where reciprocal arrangements were made and, possibly, some EU countries in waiting, there have never been any such agreements. Going back to 1946, there have never been agreements to uprate overseas pensions, particularly where those pensioners have chosen to live abroad and have often contributed for many years to the economies of those countries abroad. We believe that there are higher priorities for government spending.
Lord Stallard: My Lords, does the Minister accept that I have been raising this question in both Houses since 1980? There has never been an agreement with Australia, Canada, South Africa or New Zealand, but there have been agreements for reciprocal pensions to be paid with some 33 other non-Commonwealth countries. Does the Minister agree that the pensions we are talking about are those of people who may have left Britain for a number of perfectly good reasons and who, as has been said, have worked and earned their money here? I refer, for instance, to a widow who may have gone to Australia to live with her daughter or with her son. She is entitled to her pension, but this Government and previous governments have steadfastly refused to give such people pension increases. At the same time, is it not strange that we are now canvassing for their votes in elections? We have spent thousands of pounds on trying to force these people to vote for us in our elections while at the same time we refuse to allow them the pension to which they are entitled. Is it not time that a government showed a bit of common sense and decency about this issue?
Lord Higgins: My Lords, is it not the case that our pensioners in Australia are already in an unfavourable position when compared with those in countries which are members of the European Union? Will not this latest development make their position even worse? Does not the noble Baroness's argument apply equally to those in the European Union? Given the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shore, is there not a case for going along with the idea of the Social Security Select Committee in another place that the question of whether or not action is taken on this issue should be decided on a free vote?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, as to the noble Lord's first point, we have reciprocal arrangements with the EU in order to free the movement of people of working age. Pensions were not the primary purpose of the legislation, but obviously they are a factor. That is not the situation with Australia and Canada. Approximately 17,000 Australians of pensionable age live in the UK; and approximately 215,000 UK pensioners live in Australia. The same disparity applies to other non-European Commonwealth countries such as Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. The arrangements with the EU are part of our obligations and they need to be honoured.
As to the recommendation of the Social Security Select Committee for a free vote, it would not be particularly appropriate to ask the Houses of Parliament to hold a free vote on an issue which involves £ 1/3 billion of public moneys. I endorse the reply of the previous government; they thought this was an interesting proposal, but it was a proposal that they did not intend to follow.
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