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4 July 2007 : Column 1024

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, has the Minister read the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation paper, Tackling Low Educational Achievement? It says that anything which gives schools greater opportunities to select their pupils works to the detriment of disadvantaged pupils, and that measures which assist fair selection will help them. What does the Minister intend to do to force grammar schools to select their students more fairly?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the issue of the remaining grammar schools, of which there are a small number, is for local voters to decide under the arrangements we set in place in 1998. The noble Baroness is quite right to say that very few poorer children are able to gain access to grammar schools, and we look to them to see that they play fairly by the communities in their area. Non-grammar schools are bound by the admissions code under legislation which the House passed last year. All schools are bound to implement the admissions code, which is tougher than what went before. We believe it will ensure fair intakes in schools.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, has the Minister given attention or thought to the German system? Germany retained grammar schools and produced excellent alternatives to the extent that when East Germany joined the West, it abandoned its comprehensive system and adopted West Germany’s system, presumably because it worked better. He might also cast an eye over Northern Ireland.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a point about the importance of good vocational education, which is an aspect for which the German system is renowned. We need better vocational education in this country and more effective work-related programmes in schools, but we do not believe that we need to separate 11 year-olds into sheep and goats in order to get those quality programmes in our schools. A programme of work-related diplomas is being introduced. It is starting next year with diplomas in construction, the built environment, engineering, health, society and development, IT and creative and media. These diplomas will be a significant addition to the quality of education offered in work-related areas and will make the vocational side of our educational system much more like the German system.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, would my noble friend embroider his foreshortened Answer to assure the people of Wirral, where we still have grammar school education, that they will not be thrown into educational turmoil by the advent of a Government from the opposite Benches?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we have elections in this country and, alas, I do not determine their outcome. After the brilliant start being made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, the people of Wirral and elsewhere can rest assured that this Labour Government will stay in office for a good while longer.

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Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, one of the issues that underlies the question of grammar schools is discipline in schools. Will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to improve the prospects for good discipline in all schools?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, having confident teachers who are properly supported by parents is an essential first step. As the noble Lord will know, last year the Education and Inspections Act for the first time introduced a statutory right for teachers to discipline pupils. It implemented a recommendation made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in a review committee that he chaired back in the 1980s, which had not happened. We have given a significant amount of guidance to schools to follow up the Elton report as it is implemented in schools. The support of parents is vital, and strengthening the relationship between schools and parents is crucial underpinning for discipline in our schools.

Crime: Teenage Murders

3.23 pm

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the violent death of any young person is a tragedy. The Home Office has given, and continues to give, the issues of guns and knife crime the highest priority. We continue to work closely with law enforcement, other government departments and the community and voluntary sector to look at the causes of violence and how we can tackle it. This informs our three-themed approach of policing, powers and prevention.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that these violent incidents are the result as much of relational poverty as of material poverty? To what extent has the Home Office analysed the effects of relational poverty and formulated policies to address it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we take these issues very seriously; for that reason, Communities That Care, the Safer London Youth Survey 2004, identified risk factors that can lead to violent behaviour. They include a variety of issues, such as family conflict, low achievement at school, the availability of drugs or weapons, and a lack of social commitment. Those factors are being tackled by cross-government programmes, including the respect action plan, Every Child Matters and extended schools.

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Lord Elton: My Lords, the role of mentors has already been raised. Does the Minister recognise that it is relevant in this case, too, that children with no adult role models, particularly male adults, are increasingly at risk on our streets and feel safe only when they are in a gang, which perpetuates the problem? Will he therefore look at initiatives such as the Rainer Lambeth Youth Inclusion Programme, which unites education, social services and mentoring services to provide an area in which a young person can live and feel secure without resorting to violence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise mentoring schemes as one of the approaches that works well; it is part of the thinking behind our preventative work. We have been funding many projects through the Connected Fund. Those include mentoring and relate to family structure and organisation and the closeness of communities. We recognise fully the part that those facets can play in solving problems relating to gun crime and knife crime in our communities.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, does the Minister accept that a great gap is the lack of a strategic youth service, thought through to meet modern difficulties, with outreach workers who understand new ways of working with extraordinarily difficult young people? Does he agree that, while the voluntary sector, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is filling much of that gap, it would be better if plans were made right across the sector?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I understand entirely the noble Baroness’s point; she has great experience, knowledge and understanding of the field. The Government benefit greatly from the advice and assistance we get, particularly from the voluntary sector. That is one reason why we have spent as much as we have. The latest estimate I have seen suggests that we put £1.6 billion a year into services for young people. Programmes such as Connexions, Positive Activities for Young People, the Neighbourhood Support Fund and so on make an important contribution in this field.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the impact of gun crime and knife crime is considerable in inner-city areas. On volunteers, has the Minister given any consideration to the involvement of black church groups and other ethnic groups in schools, youth activities and institutions, so that the seriousness of these crimes is brought to the attention of young people as they grow up?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we work with all faith communities and support the initiatives undertaken in many instances by different faith groups and churches. We should keep a sense of proportion about the issue. It is terrifying that we have gun crime and knife crime in our communities but, by and large, the level of knife crime is stable and declining and there has been a sharp reduction in gun crime. We are making progress, and there have been considerable successes. I encourage the noble Lord and others to focus on that, because it helps to give a lead in this field.

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Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, last March the Metropolitan Police Commissioner warned that, while most victims of gang violence knew their perpetrators, many fear the consequences of speaking out and are therefore reluctant to go to the police. What steps are the Government taking, for example through witness protection, to encourage teenagers to come forward and assist the police in dealing with violent incidents?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we do put resources into witness protection. Together with the police, we have committed many resources to securing that sort of activity, and it pays a benefit. We must at all times encourage witnesses to come forward, because we need properly to prosecute offenders.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, how much does alcohol play a part in this problem?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is a contributing factor; I go no further than that. Clearly, it has an impact.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, will the Minister pay tribute to initiatives such as the Damilola Taylor Trust campaign which take seriously those young people who have been involved in knife crime and gun crime and have turned away from it? It invites young people to,

and therefore builds on the fact that there are young people who have turned away from this kind of activity and have much to contribute to their peers.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I certainly pay tribute to the projects that have come out of the tragic case of Damilola Taylor. The Government have invested a great deal in programmes such as Positive Futures which provide lifestyle, educational and employment opportunities for young people. We have focused those activities and that spending in many inner-city and deprived areas. In particular, I pay tribute to the respect action plan, which has channelled funding very wisely into many projects to make more useful and valuable community activities available to many deprived youths.

Pensions Bill

3.30 pm

Report received.

Clause 1 [Category A and B retirement pensions: single contribution condition]:

[Amendment No. 1 not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 2:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I did not move Amendment No. 1 because Amendment No. 2 would overtake it.

At the moment, more than 90 per cent of men, but only about 25 per cent of women, retire with a full basic state pension in their own right. That is because, for all their working lives, most men are in full-time waged work that carries pension rights, whereas most women are not. Women will have children, they will care for an elderly parent and they will care for grandchildren. Even when they are in work, they cannot always find a convenient job that allows them to juggle their lives, but instead make do with a couple of part-time jobs. None of that gives them a stamp. That is why, over the years, Governments of all parties have recognised the need to stretch the system with HRP for mothers and credits for disabled people and those caring for more than 35 hours a week.

I am delighted that, in the Bill, the Government are helping carers and reducing the number of contributory years to 30 for men and women alike, and I hope that the proportion of women retiring on a full state pension will rise during the next couple of decades to 90 per cent. That is very good news, but it still leaves out thousands of women, especially in the next few years. Who are they? Anyone who approaches retirement in the next decade who has been caring for 30 hours a week or more for elderly parents will have no pension rights for that. Anyone who now or in future has two part-time jobs cannot add them together to get a pension. Anyone who now or in future is a grandparent who takes on childcare cannot get a stamp. In other words, there are and will continue to be groups of women who are living valuable lives of care and support who will be outside the pension system and will risk retiring into poverty.

Can we help them? Yes, I think so, quite straightforwardly. Currently, you can buy missing years—any number of them—if you do so within six years of missing them. You can buy 40 of them if you want, on a rolling basis. Students buy them. People working abroad buy them. About 250,000 people a year buy them—the better educated and probably the better-off. That is because they know that with a full working life they will want a full pension record.

Even if poorer women were savvy enough to know that, even if as unpaid grandparents they could raise the £350 a year for the stamp, they still would not know until the day that they retired whether they would really have needed the extra years. Their lives, unlike men’s, are full of uncertainty. If they buy the extra years at the time, they may have wasted their money but, if they do not, they may have lost their pension rights. How can they tell what the future may hold and therefore what they should do? If their daughter moves away, the need for childcare may disappear. The elderly parents whom they are looking after at home may move into residential care. A part-time job may open up to being a full-time job. A woman may not know what she needs to do to make

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good her pension shortfall until she is already past the six-year deadline, by which time it is too late.

The amendment would allow such a woman to buy up to nine added years when she retires and when she knows what she needs. Even if she had to borrow the money to do so, the increase in her pension would more than cover it because, at retirement, she can afford it. The amendment is very simple; the nine missing years can be bought at any time, and not only within the six-year deadline. It is also entirely practical; the system is already in place for 250,000 people a year who do buy those extra years, and perhaps another 20,000 or 40,000 women may join the system. It is a fair amendment; after all, a woman could have bought those missing years at the time if she had known that she would need them. There are no freebies or handouts; she still pays for those missing years, either at the time, or at the right price, according to the RPI, 10 years down the road. What difference does it make to anyone, provided that the price is adjusted when she buys them, except to her?

The amendment is also very flexible. All sorts of people in the future will fall out of the pension system for a few years. We can either tinker with the system by tailoring it to the individual, which is complicated, or do as the amendment suggests and allow people to make good any deficiency at the end of their working life when they know what they need. It is especially fair for women, who will face a cliff edge: in March 2010, women who are 60 will need 39 years of contributions but, a month later, they will need only 30 years. The unfairness of that may be rather like the reduced married women’s stamp; it will rankle. Allowing women to buy nine more years if they choose to do so would bridge that gap.

Above all, the amendment, which would get rid of that six-year bar, would allow women, and men, to buy back their missing years and retire with a full basic state pension if they so wished. Many women will have had difficult lives. It would tackle their poverty and encourage them to save, and it might reduce means-testing. It is the right and decent thing to do and I hope that the House will support it. I beg to move.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in all the work on fairness that she has been doing for women. This is not the first time that I have supported her. My support goes back to about 11 or 12 years ago, when we went through the whole sorry saga of pension splitting on divorce. The principle was the same. It is not feminism or anything like it, but fairness. I absolutely believe in the case that the noble Baroness has made completely succinctly.

The House should realise that if women retire with an incomplete basic state pension, anyone selling them a personal account or a small pension risks mis-selling to them, as women face a pound-for-pound withdrawal rate on pension credits. Employers would understandably avoid that risk by encouraging women to opt out, yet again causing a problem or a potential problem. Yet these are the very women who need to save.

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As all noble Lords probably remember, there was a statement only last weekend about the savings ratio in this country having fallen from about 10 per cent to a ghastly figure of just over 2 per cent. The Government do not seem to think that this matters, but it matters terribly. My basic economics of many years ago taught me that one should aim to save over 10 per cent and below 15 per cent. Failure to do so means that some people could be stacking up a lot of trouble. Who are the people who will be involved in this trouble? It is the very women about whom the noble Baroness has been talking—those who have given up their working lives to look after elderly parents, children or disabled people in their own family. It is just a monstrous injustice and I hope the House will support the noble Baroness on this amendment.

The financial industry and business also want all pensioners to have at least a full basic state pension, as that encourages saving. It would also avoid mis-selling and reduce what I feel is a very demeaning trend; namely, an increase in means-testing. I certainly give the noble Baroness my support.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I rise diffidently to speak on this issue, but I am fortified by having read the nine-page leaflet to help people like me to understand these recondite matters. I refer first to the six-year rule: “Thou shalt do this within six years of having missed”. That is a valid point whether you can buy six, nine or any other number of additional years. I argue this on behalf of ordinary people like me, of whom there are many, who lead busy lives and do not like to face the complexity of national insurance. While the document to which I have referred is written in commendably plain words, it guides one some three times in the relevant section to go to a website, yet many people do not have access to the internet. On one occasion the confession is made that these matters are extremely complex.

The Leitch report pointed out that getting on for 20 per cent of our adult population are functionally illiterate. They find it difficult to understand leaflets and respond to official rules. The leaflet states elsewhere that the department “may” alert people to buy some extra years of pension contribution, but the implication is that it may not. The rules keep changing. Many ordinary people lead busy, complex lives. A woman bringing up children may not be in work, may be in work, may work part time, or may have two part-time jobs. When faced with this, she would ask, “Where do I stand?”. In creating this complexity, we have a duty to help people to understand it. That is what I care most about in the proposal.

There is also the question of cost. I accept that someone buying extra years just before they retire would be making a smaller contribution than if they had been paying in 20 years earlier, because the Government would have had use of that money much earlier. If that money had been invested for that time, it would have doubled in value. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, stated in Committee on 4 June, her amendment does not specify what the contribution should be. Those who want to argue the question of the cost ought to recognise that.

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