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Lord Hill of Oareford: I agree with the point that in times of economic hardship and difficulty it is important that we are able to support the most vulnerable. As part of the announcements today about the Munro review, which may help the noble Baroness, we have

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announced that there will be a £23 million local social work improvement fund available to local authorities to help support children's services in 2010-11. We will provide funding for the successful programme to support recruitment and retention of social workers, and we will make funding available for establishing an independent college of social work. I hope that all these measures will provide some reassurance to the noble Baroness.

Afghanistan: Child Asylum Seekers


11.32 am

Asked By Lord Roberts of Llandudno

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Neville-Jones): My Lords, the House may be aware of press reports that have appeared on this issue in the past week, which may have misled. I assure the House straightaway that only unaccompanied children for whom satisfactory care and integration assistance can be provided will be returned. What is being proposed is part of that assistance. The UK is tendering for integration services for all forced-returned Afghans-that is, not just children. If that tender process identifies suitable provision for some Afghans in the 16 to 17 age bracket, then indeed it might be possible to return them. Children under that age will not be returned, but even in that age group that will depend on individual cases and the assistance that can be provided. We doubt that there will be big numbers.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: I thank the Minister for that reply. I know that when we entered this coalition Government we thought that one of the great pledges was to stop the detention of children for immigration purposes and I hope that that will be implemented. However, this seems a backward step. Is the Minister convinced that we are keeping to the letter of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that every child-everyone of 18 and under-should be cared for in a very special way? This seems to be treating the most vulnerable children among us in a very harsh way.

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, there is no question of detention, which does not arise in these cases. As to whether we are conforming to the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, I suggest that it is precisely in order to make assistance available to young people that we are instituting these arrangements and the tender is going out. This is not about buildings; it is about provision for reintegration into society and for other ways of helping these young people to find their parents and to get back to a normal life.

Lord Martin of Springburn: My Lords, may I ask for assurances that any child asylum seeker, while he or she is in this country, has proper legal representation and proper access to our social work care departments?

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Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, when they are in this country, these children are in the care of local authorities, which is an extremely costly process for us. The sort of concerns that the noble Lord has are indeed being catered for.

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: Does the Minister really believe that the deportation of unaccompanied child asylum seekers to Afghanistan is in each child's best interests? If she does, perhaps she could tell us why.

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, I am sure that the House entirely agrees that this is a very difficult issue. We are in an age of migration, but we have to consider the alternatives. Unless this country is prepared to take every single individual who arrives on our shores as a result of having been trafficked through the system and to keep them indefinitely-in the end as our citizens-we have to find a humane way of returning people. These provisions are designed precisely to provide that degree of humanity and assistance to the young people who arrive here.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, how will the Government monitor the safety and well-being of those children who are returned to Afghanistan? Also, will the Government give an assurance that this is not a precedent for returning children to other countries as well?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, part of the service of providing assistance for reintegration will be to find these children's families if they have not found them and to attempt to get them a job and an education. Actually, these young people are being helped to be put in a position that they might not have been in when they left their country. I do not think that we are doing them a disservice. On the question of wider immigration and deportation arrangements, that will obviously depend on the circumstances of each country, as the noble Lord knows.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister invite the organisations that have expressed concern about whether these arrangements are in the best interests of the child, including the UNHCR, Refugee and Migrant Justice, the Refugee Council and the Children's Society, to a meeting so that she can explain the provisions and reassure them? Secondly, given that Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are all planning to return children to Afghanistan, while Norway is building a hostel similar to the one that we propose, would not pan-European arrangements for the reception of these children in Afghanistan be better than every state making its own arrangements?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, we have a memorandum of understanding with the Afghan Government about the return of such individuals, to which the UNHCR is party. We work with all the parties to ensure that the terms that I am trying to set out are observed. The noble Lord referred to other interested organisations. My understanding of the

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position of Refugee Action is that, provided that the conditions are right, which is the proviso that we are trying to meet, it does not have any principled objection to the return of children of this age in the circumstances that are being provided. As for other interested parties, of course I am happy to meet Refugee Action and I intend to make that part of my duties.

City of Westminster Bill [HL]

Canterbury City Council Bill

Leeds City Council Bill

Nottingham City Council Bill

Reading Borough Council Bill

Revival Motions

11.37 am

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

Motions agreed.

10 Jun 2010 : Column 747

Academies Bill [HL]

Order of Consideration Motion

11.38 am

Moved By Lord Hill of Oareford

Motion agreed.

Pensions: Automatic Enrolment


11.38 am

Moved By Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, it is a pleasure to open this short debate. If I may, I would like to preface the debate by welcoming the Minister to his new and interesting position. He still has that sunny disposition and smile on his face. I hope that it is there until 2015. With a bit of luck, I will try to help him to get there. We will do the best we can.

I have never had the opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, for the professional and collegiate way in which he, as a Minister, allowed me and other Opposition spokesmen to share some of the Government's thinking. I appreciated that support, and look forward to listening with great interest to what he has to say in future; that is really a way of softening him up, because the full-frontal attack will come any moment now.

It is hard to cover this territory in 15 minutes, but the debate's purpose is to allow the incoming Government to report progress on automatic enrolment and personal accounts. We should take time at this stage to reflect on some of the continuing concerns identified by the industry, because they are real. Some understanding of the timetable, and the planned next steps, would be extremely helpful. Noble Lords will know that the new NEST-the National Employment Savings Trust-is vested with its powers on 5 July, which is not a long time coming. It is an important reform and an important body. There is a lot of money at stake. The success of this policy programme is fundamental to the future provision of workplace pensions in this country.

The context is well known and understood across the whole House. Not only is the United Kingdom seriously personally indebted at the level of households-we have had some interesting discussions about that in the debate on the Loyal Address-but, looking forward to pension provision in the longer term, it has undersaved as a nation. We obviously face the financial constraints of which everyone is aware. That will become clearer later in the year.

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I never tire of making the point that, as a country, we underestimate the impact that demographic trends will have on all of our policy areas. I attended an interesting PPI AGM yesterday where the point was made that the best projections we are all working on are estimates. If they are wrong by even 1 per cent in an upwards direction, there are some serious consequences. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, chaired the event, which was an interesting demonstration of how some of these estimates can be wrong. There have been underestimates in the past, and we must make proper provision for long-term saving for some of our citizens, who are just ignorant-in the best sense-of how long they will have to make provision for when it comes to their retirement: some 20 or 30 years. It is perhaps not surprising that some do not think about that because they are working out how to budget through the next week, never mind the next 20 or 30 years.

There is a need to understand the context, and to re-establish the consensus across the party divide if we can. Pension provision is a long-term problem. Of course, there might be tactical differences and different approaches in dealing with the next Comprehensive Spending Review provisions. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that pension provision is a long-term strategy. We must get it right for the long term.

The National Employment Savings Trust is an important element in all of this. I support workplace pensions. I was first introduced to the idea by a man called James Purnell, of whom noble Lords may have heard since he served on the Select Committee that I had the privilege to chair in a previous incarnation. Auto-enrolment is a key new factor in being able to encourage people to save properly.

The Government are new. We have had a period of purdah when everything has been in stasis and no one has been able to take things forward. The mid-2012 introduction date is fast approaching. Some clarification of the Government's position on the review and its terms of reference would be useful. The scope and membership would obviously be part of that. How long is it going to take? When will we get access to its conclusions? Are we right to assume that it will include the delivery contract, which is quite controversial? By that I mean the contract with TATA to provide the default NEST pensions provision. We have already spent some £60 million on loans for the personal administration-that is, on PADA, which preceded NEST. Is there any further information about how that looks and what the Government propose to do about it? We would also like to hear from the Government about the annual management charges for personal accounts. All of that is simply to clarify the situation, so that the industry, which is interested in engaging with this as positively as it can, can respond as positively as it is able.

There are other, perhaps less obvious, questions about the review. There is a business department review of red tape, which will look at whether and how employers can certify existing schemes to qualify under the new provisions. There is a huge amount of red tape there. We know about this because we spent a long time discussing it in the course of the primary legislation. Will that be a factor? Is the review taking into account

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the business department's interest in this important area of policy? It would be helpful to know that. Is it likely to be directly affected by expenditure cuts? We all expect the Comprehensive Spending Review in October to be quite difficult to handle. Will those CSR announcements indirectly or directly affect the proposals for personal accounts and auto-enrolment?

In the longer term, although still important, is there any fresh thinking about how the auto-enrolment personal accounts will impact on and fit with means-testing policy? This is a debate that I know the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is actively and rightly engaged in. He is trying to get some of these incentives changed and made more positive. It is difficult to see how you can be confident about deploying the NEST and personal accounts policy without being careful about how it fits with means-testing in the longer term.

The problems with this debate are very interesting. I recently had the pleasure of sponsoring a lunch here, where the pensions company AXA brought forward its research entitled Public Policy Research Report: Workplace Pensions. The results of this survey are very important. AXA carried out an equivalent piece of work in 2006, at the same time as the White Paper was published. It found some interesting concerns that needed to be addressed. Three years on, in December 2009, AXA repeated the research, covering a group of 300 employers of different sizes and scale and more than 1,000 employees, just to test what they knew and thought about these policy proposals. The conclusion, I think, is that support for this policy is waning. That is the worrying thing and it is my conclusion from reading this research.

Mr Steve Folkard, who is head of pensions and savings policy, reports in his foreword to the research that he expected support to grow between 2006 and 2009, but writes:

"However, in the three years that have passed the findings do not make for the most comfortable reading for policy makers".

Looking at the detail, I agree with that statement. Mr Folkard concludes his foreword by saying:

"NEST is designed for the low to average wage earners and its success will be judged not just by the extent to which the number of people saving for retirement increases but whether the aggregate amount saved by the population increases too".

I agree with that.

The survey has five bullet point findings which are worth rehearsing. First, it states:

"Support among employers for the introduction of NEST has dropped to 26%".

That is a fall of 26 points over the three-year period, which is of serious concern. Secondly, it states:

"There has been a 7 point fall in companies being able to 'absorb the costs and comply'".

Thirdly, it states:

"19% of employers say they will reduce employee numbers as a result"-

of this policy's introduction. That is "up 3 points", which is bad news. Fourthly, there is a piece of good news. The survey states:

"21% of employers would level down to 3% per cent"-

there is a problem with levelling down-which is,

10 Jun 2010 : Column 750

However, I am sure that colleagues will be concerned that 21 per cent of employers are considering levelling down. Fifthly, I was interested to note that the survey stated that,

I hope that the Government will study that survey carefully as it raises concerns that we all share.

I believe that two or three points need to be added to that list. Size of business is an issue. There is clear evidence in AXA's survey that smaller companies will struggle to deal with all this to a far greater extent than some bigger businesses. We need to consider that further. If we are not careful, low-income workplace savers, particularly early joiners who are close to retiring age when they join, may get no benefit whatever from this system. That also needs to be looked at. Going forward over the next three years, opting out will be even more important for reasons which we all understand; that is, household domestic budgets will be under even more pressure. People will think of this measure as a wage cut if its positive aspects are not explained to them to enable it to be taken forward.

What can we do to help? What should we be looking to do? I look forward to hearing about the review. I understand that that discussion may be premature in that the Government have been in office for only 20 minutes, as it were, and reviews are reviews.

Noble Lords: Too long!

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I hear cries of "Too long" from a sedentary position. We have been in office longer than 20 minutes, but these are early days. However, I hope that the Minister and the department will understand that we need to take account of the urgency of this matter. The Government should restate their position as energetically and urgently as they can. They must demonstrate enthusiasm and demonstrate that they are up for this fight as it will be a struggle to win hearts and minds to make this policy successful. It is clear to me that we need to provide more flexibility for employers, and soon. We need to be able to access better information systems that explain the long-term benefits of this policy for employees and employers. We need to be able to do that in pretty short order if this policy is to succeed.

In the longer term we need to look at the promise of an evaluation when the "steady state" is reached in 2016. It is a shame that this has slipped back. I understand the reasons why the previous Administration slipped back the timescale slightly. I supported that as the original timescale presented many challenges. However, we will now not have a fully functioning 8 per cent annual saving amount until 2016. That is a long time coming and people will suffer from being undersaved between now and then as a result. We also need new impact assessments of the cost provisions that accompanied the draft regulations. I do not think that the earlier cost assumptions were sufficiently realistic. There should be better information. The department should have done more work since the previous assumptions were published. It would give the industry confidence if the department undertook to set up a

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working group with it and other interested parties in order to engage with the deployment and implementation of this policy. That is important.

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