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Lord Henley: My Lords, I thank the Government Chief Whip for giving the House the dates of the Summer Recess and for assuring us that this was as a result of co-operation with the usual channels. However, the undercurrent of what the noble Lord said was so much nonsense. Of course the Government could have made an announcement much earlier than they have done. I appreciate that on occasions in the past it has not been possible to do this, but on this occasion the Government could have done so. It is only through the co-operation of the usual channels that they are able to bring it forward now. I should like to ask for a commitment from the Government that in future years the announcement will be made somewhat earlier than in the past.
Not knowing when business is to be brought forward causes great inconvenience, not only for the Official Opposition but for all Members of the House. The Government have a large number of Bills still outstanding--far more than one normally expects at this stage. The Official Opposition have co-operated far more than is necessary. We have allowed far more Bills to go to the Moses Room than is usual. As a result of that the Government could have come forward and been slightly more helpful. It would be useful for the Government to offer some advice to all Members of the House as to when all the Bills are likely to come before us. When are we likely to see those?
We have now had the announcement that we are to rise at the end of July. As I said, that announcement could have been made much earlier. The problem is that the Government have far too much legislation.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I, too, welcome what the Government Chief Whip has just said. As he will recall, all Oppositions complain about the immense size of any government's legislative programme. That will no doubt be true in the next Parliament, as in this, as well as it was in the last Parliament.
Perhaps I may pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. The Liberal Democrats would prefer to have more Bills considered in the Moses Room than is now the case. We would get on with our business far more effectively were we to do that.
Lord Carter: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords and in particular to the Opposition Chief Whip for his--if I may say so--typically gracious response. I have checked and this is the earliest ever date that the date of the Summer Recess has been announced, certainly in recent years. I have all the figures for when it was announced by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when he was the Government Chief Whip. This is, as I say, the earliest ever date. Business has been agreed until the summer. The noble Lord knows the dates on which we will be bringing forward all the Bills, and, depending on their progress in the Commons, all the Bills we have to reach before the Summer Recess. I was asked to set out the business for the spill-over period. Frankly, I do not think that any Chief Government Whip could do that. I agree with the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip regarding the use of the Moses Room. The usual channels have to work by agreement. But that does not mean that the Official Opposition can have a veto over the Government's business.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I understand that psychologists explain both ancient and modern Sisyphean insistence on pushing boulders up mountains, only to see them roll down again, by a deeply-rooted conviction that a little ground is gained each time and the labour has not been therefore wholly
There are essentially three views on the SERPS saga, assuming agreement that all has not been as it should have been. View one is that the halving of SERPS inheritance was simply wrong and should be cancelled in its entirety. That is a tenable view, but I think that the battle has been lost. View two is that in failing to advertise the change, and indeed in positively denying the change, the department lost the right to save on pension inheritance for the whole period of duff information and all the people who are potentially affected by that duff information. That view is also valid, although I fear it, too, represents a lost battle.
The third view is that at least we should give special treatment within a compensation scheme to those who have been particularly disadvantaged, preferably on the face of the Bill, but in regulations and through ministerial undertakings about the scope of those regulations, if this is the best we can do. It is this third view that I am continuing to pursue today. If the Minister is turning her face against the face of the Bill--I coin a phrase, as it were--and if we could see the regulations in draft during the summer as part of the consultation process, it would assure us that these regulations will allay fears about the way in which claims would be handled.
I have, very modestly, targeted just two groups to add to those who have given incorrect or incomplete information either by letter or by telephone. I confess that I would have liked to include a further group; namely, those who had retired before the department became a little more forthcoming with the facts. I sense that I am on a loosing wicket with this one, too; but, rather like the England Test team, at least I can blame the wicket rather than the batsman. Nevertheless, I hope those other batsmen who have already retired are given a second innings when the rules of the game are being rewritten.
My surviving two groups are those who relied on departmental leaflets which were clearly misleading, and those who, whatever they may or may not have relied on, are now, by virtue of disability, unable to defend their own interests in pursuing a compensation claim. My noble friend Lady Greengross is targeting a third group of people who asked questions and might reasonably have expected to receive the right answers, whereas what they actually received was misleading or incomplete.
I hope very much that the Minister will be able to offer today the assurances we are both seeking about justice being done. Were she minded to underpin justice by accepting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, so be it. I beg to move.
However, I am concerned about the timing and the way in which this matter has developed. It has been a considerable time since the matter first came to light. In the course of the debates last year we were told that there was to be an ombudsman's report. That report was in due course produced. But it took one year to produce it when the ombudsman merely examined six illustrative cases. That was a very long time indeed to deal with six illustrative cases. It is also true, as I pointed out on previous occasions, that the ombudsman's report was far from clear on precisely what its recommendations were, although the Government have said that they accept them.
Estimates of the amounts involved in terms of costs vary considerably, but there is little doubt that this sad saga is probably the most expensive administrative mistake of all time. I believe that the estimates vary between £2.5 billion up to £5.9 billion between 2000 and 2050. Of course, those costs will be spread over some 50 years. Nonetheless, this will be a major item of expenditure. We do not know how, in practice, the Government's proposals are going to work. We are still remarkably in the dark on this.
That brings me to the report of the ombudsman. I shall need to quote from it at some length at the point at which he discusses what happens when a department makes an administrative error. The ombudsman wrote to me in response to my inquiry, following an exchange on the Floor of the House in which the Minister said that if I wanted to know the opinion of the ombudsman, then I should write to ask him. I did so. This is part of his reply:
At the beginning of my remarks I stated that I was worried about the length of time it has taken to reach a resolution on this issue. We still do not know precisely what are the Government's proposals. In his report, the ombudsman pointed out that he, too, did not know the details and therefore he was unable to comment at this stage. One might think that he could perhaps have reported a little more broadly. In any event, given that this matter has been under consideration quite literally for years, we cannot simply leave it until the regulations are published. We need to reach a point where, at least as regards the first hurdle, we know exactly where we stand. I hope that that point can be clarified this afternoon.
Surely the department has by now some idea of what is to be contained in the regulations. Perhaps, as she has done so often and so courteously in the past, the Minister could provide us with them at this stage so that they could be debated during the course of the passage of this Bill. If we wait then we shall not be able to discuss them and to put down amendments to the Bill which could cover any points that we did not like, given that the regulations themselves will not be subject to amendment. It will be too late for this House to take a view on what should be done. We shall remain in ignorance of the exact details here.
At least as far as concerns the first hurdle, I hope that, when the House considers Amendment No. 75, it will take the view that this point should be clarified beyond any doubt whatever.
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