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House of Lords

Monday, 17 December 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Introduction: Lord Stern of Brentford

Lord Stern of Brentford—Sir Nicholas Herbert Stern, Knight, having been created Baron Stern of Brentford, of Elsted in the County of West Sussex and of Wimbledon in the London Borough of Merton, for life, was introduced between the Lord Wilson of Tillyorn and the Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, and made the solemn affirmation.

Pensions: National Insurance Contributions

2.42 pm

Baroness Hollis of Heigham asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, the Government committed to look at a range of options to help individuals who have gaps in their national insurance contribution records to purchase additional voluntary contributions. This work is now complete. The options were analysed in terms of fairness, affordability and simplicity. The Government have concluded that none of the options considered passes these assessment criteria and none is particularly well targeted, and therefore have decided to make no changes to the current rules to allow individuals to buy additional national insurance contributions.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am profoundly dismayed by that Answer. In my view, it will not do. Does my noble friend accept that there are coming before the Commons, and therefore to your Lordships’ House in due course, the National Insurance Contributions Bill and the personal accounts Pensions Bill and that, if this House agrees, we will continue to fight to ensure that women who have been carers do not find themselves penalised by going into retirement with an incomplete, poor pension?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I well understand the disappointment of my noble friend and others in the House, particularly as she has campaigned so effectively on this issue, but the position is as I have outlined. We should not lose sight of what has happened

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under this Government in improvements to pensions, particularly for women. For example, the reduction in the number of qualifying years needed for a full basic state pension is 30—a key measure—and, for the first time, paid and credited contributions for caring will be recognised equally for basic state pension and state second pension. Those are important developments, but I am well aware that this debate is quite likely to continue with those two pieces of legislation.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, does the Minister not remember that when the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, was put to this House it was agreed to by a margin of 179 votes to 86? Surely it is a sensible measure; it gives flexibility and it particularly helps women in retirement. Frankly, the sooner it is done, the better.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am not sure that we on this side should take any lessons from the pensions record of the Conservatives. The challenge for the measures was to reach those people whom my noble friend most wanted to reach but not to have to bear the cost of the others. That has been the difficulty. For example, if this is a policy commitment that the Opposition want to take on, let me explain that the option of an extra nine years pre-2010 and six years post-2010 would cost in cash terms a bit short of £5 billion to 2050—net present value, in prices terms, £1.3 billion. That is the analysis and that is the issue before us.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, when I became general-secretary of my trade union in 1986, I inherited a situation in which part-time women workers were ineligible for the pension scheme? I not only provided for them to become members of the scheme but I backdated the years of service to ensure that they were paid money for those years that they had already completed. I hope that the Government do the same with the national insurance contributions.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, pensioners have been well served by this Government. Let us look at the facts of what has happened since 1997. Currently, only around 35 per cent of women reaching state pension age are entitled to a full basic state pension. When the 2010 changes come in, that figure will be three-quarters and, in 2025, 90 per cent, which will be equality with men. Because of the changes that we have made to the state second pension, 2.1 million carers, more than 90 per cent of them women, and 6.1 million low earners, almost 60 per cent of them women, are included in the scheme, which did not provide for them before.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, does the Minister accept that, today of all days, when the Government have finally run up the white flag after their appalling treatment of the 125,000 robbed pensioners, this is the last day to try to defend the indefensible on this issue? I give notice that, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, we on these Benches will be fighting as hard as we can during consideration of the upcoming Pensions Bill to ensure that people get justice. Does the Minister not accept that what is

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happening here is a Labour Government spending billions to help rich people by giving them top-rate tax relief and preventing poor women, with broken work records, from saving for a modest pension?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, it must be easy being a Liberal Democrat: you are responsible for nothing and it does not matter what spending commitments you make, as we see far too often. If one looks at who would not benefit from the proposals, one sees that it would be the poorest women, because the poorest women headed for pension credit would lose pound for pound if they were asked to cough up for additional class 3 contributions. The proposals would not help those women who could not get beyond 60 per cent of their spouse’s pension; they would simply be paying in money to no avail. It is not right to characterise it as the noble Lord has done.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords—

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords—

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords—

Noble Lords: The Cross Benches.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, the Government are developing a strategy for carers across the board and I am pleased to be part of that work, but surely it is beyond belief that a group of carers and people who have had caring responsibilities are going to be discriminated against in recouping the pensions that they could have been entitled to if they had not taken on that role. Will the Government please reconsider, because this is extremely unfortunate?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I stress again that the challenge has been to reach the very people whom the noble Baroness describes. That is not possible without great intricacies and complications, which is one of the criteria that we set our face against when we discuss these things in this House. The reality is that the role of carers going forward is significantly improved for the reasons that we gave when we debated the Pensions Bill earlier this year.

Post Offices: Closures

2.50 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bach: My Lords, Cabinet Office guidelines clearly state that consultations should not be launched and decisions relating to them announced in an election period. Successive Administrations of both parties have observed those arrangements for many years. The application of the guidelines will have limited impact on the start of public consultations and

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announcements of decisions as they will relate only to those that would otherwise have been made in the three-week period preceding the local elections on 1 May 2008.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I appreciate what the Minister says but perhaps I may quote from a letter of 20 November that was sent out to post offices:

I emphasise, asked by the Government—

Is that not government intrusion into the ordinary running of elections in the United Kingdom? Is it not a deliberate ploy to hide the bad news—the truth—until it is too late for the electors to do anything about it?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am very surprised that the noble Lord should consider that to be the case. I shall quote, in my turn, from the guidelines:

However, care should be taken to avoid taking action during election periods,

of the public. That effectively means not undertaking publicity or consultation events,

In answer to the noble Lord’s second question, no, it is not a case of suppressing bad news. In fact, the plan for London has been brought forward so that the proposals there will now be published before the moratorium on new consultation starts. They were planned to be published during the purdah period but now they will be produced early. That is hardly suppressing bad news.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the issue of post office closures is extremely sensitive, particularly in local elections, and that, notwithstanding the guidelines he referred to, there is a danger that the Government will have appeared, both last year and this year, to be postponing these decisions simply to protect the interests of the Labour Party?

Lord Bach: Again, my Lords, I am surprised that the noble Lord should take that view. It could not be more wrong. Purdah has been accepted by both parties for many years and it means that neither good news nor bad news can be given out during the period of an election. As I have already explained, in London the purdah period means that the consultation period will be delayed but the proposals will be published early.

There are two parts of the country where consultation will not begin where it would otherwise have begun during the purdah period; namely, West Yorkshire and Devon. I am hopeful that the Labour Party will do extremely well in Devon, but if you were going to pick and choose somewhere for the reasons that have been suggested, I do not think Devon would be the place.

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The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, in view of the proposal for 500 outreach offices, what is being done about working with places of worship to encourage their possible use as post offices?

Lord Bach: My Lords, that is not directly related to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno. However, the intention is to open 500 outreach offices as a counter to the closures that may well take place. The right reverend Prelate will know that that will work by sub-postmasters or ex-sub-postmasters going to village halls or church halls for limited periods in order to provide some of the post office services. That programme is going ahead.

Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, may I add to the Minister’s level of surprise? My memory says that in eleven and a half years as a Minister, I never recall purdah starting more than six months ahead of an election; nor do I recall political influence being exerted more than six months ahead of an election in order to try to protect the Government from the voters’ ire. Why will the noble Lord not just admit that a political decision has been made?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I think the noble Lord is slightly mistaken. The purdah period lasts from 3 April to 1 May; it does not start on 17 December.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, is the Minister aware that Scrooge has come early this Christmas? Post Office Ltd is capping the amount of Christmas stamps allocated to sub-post offices. When I went to buy 200 second-class stamps last week, I was told that there were not any. Post Office Ltd was not allocating any more. Is this a deft way of closing sub-post offices?

Lord Bach: My Lords, that question is best directed to Post Office Ltd. The answer is probably no. My advice to the noble Lord would be to go into Central Lobby and buy his stamps there.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, regardless of an election period coming along, the general perception of the public in this country is that the consultation procedure is a sham anyway? Will he place in the Library a list of the Crown post offices and sub-post offices that have closed since May 1997?

Lord Bach: My Lords, it is no sham. Following the consultations, Post Office Ltd and the Post Office Users Group look at the results and then the decisions are announced. Some decisions have already been altered as a consequence of that period. This is not a sham at all, but a very difficult process and we are determined to keep a proper network of post offices in the country. This is, I am afraid, part of being in government: you have to take tough decisions. I am not sure that either side opposite is prepared to do that.

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Lord De Mauley: My Lords, does not the recent accidental publication on the Government’s website of a list of post offices scheduled for closure show, as the Minister’s noble friend says, that the Government’s so-called consultation is a complete and cynical sham? Was it merely incompetence, or something more sinister?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I hoped that I had answered my noble friend. I have to give the noble Lord opposite the same answer. Consultation is not a sham. If there is evidence of it being a sham, I am sure the noble Lord will let us know.

Zimbabwe: EU-Africa Summit

2.58 pm

Lord Hamilton of Epsom asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, raised Zimbabwe and the appalling human rights situation during her intervention at the EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon on behalf of the United Kingdom. She also spoke to numerous African leaders at the summit, including President Wade of Senegal, President Mbeki of South Africa and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister, to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe and underline UK concerns. I might add that a discussion on the human rights and governance situation in Zimbabwe in the summit proper was a precondition in allowing President Mugabe a visa for the summit.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, was it not a terrible disappointment that despite these protestations there was actually very little reaction from Zimbabwe? It does not seem to have made any impression whatever on President Mugabe.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct although I am sure that, like me, he is hardly surprised. President Mugabe has repeatedly shown himself to be immune to the protests of any of us in Europe and blind to the dreadful human rights situation confronting his people.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, will the Minister elaborate on the reported settlement which President Mbeki has facilitated with President Mugabe that outlines the conditions for free and, one hopes, fair elections in Zimbabwe in March next year?

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