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House of Lords

Tuesday, 15th October 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Married Women's Pensions

Baroness Greengross asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to review the impact on women of the married women's reduced rate national insurance contribution.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, the number of married women on the reduced rate stamp, which was 3,500,000 in 1978 and is now 80,000, will be 3,000 in 2010. We have no plans at this stage to review the rates.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, with which I have some sympathy, despite my former role with Age Concern. I think the Minister knows that. No one paying reduced contributions could expect to get the same benefits as people who paid the full stamp. It is not like the scandal that affected inherited SERPS in 1999–2000. However, many women probably did not fully understand the rules or their impact. After all, who does? Even the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, admitted that pensions were extremely complicated.

Is there any possibility that women adversely affected by ill informed decisions made prior to 1977 will be allowed to buy back their missing contribution record or, at least, part of it, given the 25 per cent rule? That would go some way to addressing their concerns and help with their problems.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Baroness has a proud record, particularly on issues such as inherited SERPS. However, I cannot help her on this issue. This is a pay-as-you-go scheme. Most married women who continued to enjoy the reduced stamp after 1977-78 did well financially out of it. Obviously, that was not the case for some individuals. To recalculate now on a PAYE basis and decide whether there were adverse consequences would be difficult practically, and I am not sure that it would be fair. It would be like saying that a married woman who opted to pay the full stamp in 1978 but who, over the next 25 years, had low or intermittent earnings—with the result that her state pension was no higher than she would have got on her husband's contribution—should also be allowed to revisit her choice. We cannot do that.

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Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that there are anomalies in the situation? For example, a woman can qualify for a pension on her husband's contributions. However, if she reaches 60 before he reaches 65, she will have no pension, as she must wait until he is 65. That leaves women with no pension at all.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, my noble friend is right. As your Lordships will understand, the problem is that the reduced married women's stamp dates back to 1948 when the presumption was that women were dependent on their husband's earnings and on his pension. The assumption behind the situation described by my noble friend is that, if the husband is under 65, he will still be in work and his wife will enjoy the support of his wages.

Earl Russell: My Lords, can the Minister say what benefits, if any, were received by women who paid the reduced contribution after 1977? What was done to explain the situation after 1977 to women? Does the Minister accept that it is no excuse for not remedying an injustice to say that it is only a little one?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am not saying that it is an injustice. Most women who took the reduced married women's stamp saved thousands of pounds—something like £18,000 for someone on mean average earnings over that time. If such a sum had been invested, it would have produced an alternative return.

The noble Earl also asked what women knew. I have a copy of the leaflet that I had when I chose to continue with the reduced married women's stamp. It says, in bold type:

    "The contribution choice . . . Why your choice is important".

It goes on to say:

    "The choice you make about paying contributions can effect your future entitlement to benefits such as maternity allowance, sickness, invalidity and unemployment benefits and retirement pension. This is explained in paragraphs 12-21 of this leaflet and you should read these carefully before you make up your mind".

That is in the simplest conceivable English. It certainly allowed me to make an informed choice at the time.

The noble Earl's first question was about the benefits enjoyed by people who took the married women's reduced stamp. They receive statutory sick pay, statutory maternity pay, industrial injuries benefit and the 60 per cent of the pension that goes to the wife of a man who makes a full national insurance contribution.

Baroness Billingham: My Lords, I was one of the people in the predicament of having to opt back in. Does the Minister agree that there was enormous publicity about the perils of not re-entering the full system, not only in leaflets, but in media of every description—newspapers, radio and so on? None of us was left in any doubt about the outcome.

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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for making that point. Women first entering the labour market in the 1960s and 1970s had to sign to elect to receive the reduced stamp; secondly, in 1977–78, they had all the information described by my noble friend; thirdly, they received further information in 1989; and, fourthly, they were given further information in 2000 associated with the changes in the lower earnings limit. So, on four occasions, married women paying the reduced stamp received fairly straightforward—I do not say that it was brilliant—accessible information on which to make an informed choice.

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

2.43 p.m.

Lord Naseby : I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chairman of governors of Bedford School.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of the difficulties over A-level results, there have been any changes in the senior management or board of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, in her Statement of 27th September, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced that she had removed Sir William Stubbs from his post as chairman of the QCA. Since then, there have been no further changes in the membership of the senior management or the board as a consequence of the difficulties over A-level results.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, should not the whole educational team of Ministers resign—in recognition of the trauma, heart-searching and career stunting that this fiasco has caused for over 90,000 young people? Is not the real truth that it was Ministers' insistence on a new, unproven and untrialed examination that caused the fiasco? Rather than "Education, education, education", ought not the epitaph of this Government in this area to be: "Failure, failure, failure"?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do not recognise what the noble Lord has said. My answer is simply: no, they should not resign.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, will the Minister explain to the House on what grounds Sir William Stubbs was sacked?

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in looking at what needed to be done to restore confidence in the A-level system, believed that it was appropriate to dismiss Sir William Stubbs.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that during last summer a senior civil servant was acting chief executive of the QCA and that, currently, 22 per cent of DfES civil servants are seconded to other organisations? Will she accept that under such circumstances it is inappropriate to claim that the QCA is completely independent? Does not the whole thing smack of micro-management of the system by her department? Will the Minister agree with me that, for the sake of future A-level students, the QCA should be seen to be entirely independent?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, in answering Questions in this House last week, I made it clear that the QCA is an independent statutory body. No doubt noble Lords will look forward to the Statement that I shall repeat later today, when we shall discuss the issues that have arisen. It is common practice for secondments to take place both from the DfES and to the DfES. We believe—and previous governments employed this practice—that it is the best way of ensuring that we have the best possible knowledge. Mike Tomlinson's review was quite clear: there has not been government interference by any Minister.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, is the Minister confident that her officials and experts can produce an examination system—designed to deal with about 20 per cent of the ability range, now designed to deal with 50 per cent of the ability range—that will not give rise to the anomalies produced by the present system?

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