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3.48 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I rise to speak briefly to amendment (b) on parliamentary pensions, which is tabled in my name and the names of many other hon. Members from all parties. I am grateful to those who have signed it and to those who have indicated that they would have signed it if they had had more time.

I stress that I have no particular vested interest in the proposal. The records show that I am the marrying kind, and that as a result no one with whom I am connected would benefit from the change.

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Recommendation 8 of the report states that trustees should canvass the views of members of the parliamentary contributory pension fund on the issue of survivors pensions for unmarried partners, but what will happen after views have been canvassed? The motion merely calls on trustees to consider recommendation 8, together with recommendations 4 and 6. It does not speak about how best to implement the recommendation, as it does with recommendation 2. Opinion in this House would invite the trustees to go further and to act. That is why I thought it appropriate to give the House an opportunity, through a Division or by general assent, to give a view on the matter.

This proposal relates to the domestic arrangements of hon. Members in this day and age and is a reflection of current society. Also, we should be cautious not to penalise those who are bereaved, those who are the partners of a member who has died but do not happen to be married to them. By passing the amendment, we will indicate our wish to see our own practice reflect best practice in the private sector and the aspirations of those in the public sector.

There is a long-term TUC campaign that the House of Commons Library note describes as a pension provision for unmarried partners. A document, "Pensions and prejudice—how public sector pension schemes discriminate against non-married partners", argues for the introduction of benefits for non-married adult survivors in public sector pensions schemes. For those who feel it important to see that the Government do not oppose such proposals, it should be noted that the Government's own Green Paper—called, interestingly, "Partnerships in pensions"—states that the Government would be prepared to consider how practical arrangements can be devised for achieving the extension of eligibility for survivors' pensions to unmarried partners in the context of a statutory scheme.

The Government, in their evidence, indicated that they are prepared to consider extending eligibility for survivors' pensions to unmarried partners of members of statutory schemes, provided that the members are prepared to meet the additional costs. I believe that we should indicate that we are prepared to meet those small additional costs.

This proposal will not benefit the majority of Members; I accept that. This will be, in effect, an altruistic act by many current contributors to a minority, but a minority that exists in all parties and whose domestic arrangements, which reflect a significant proportion of current society, are not those of living with a married partner. It would not come at a cost to the Exchequer and it would satisfy those who worship private sector practice—as, now, probably a majority of private sector schemes have such a measure—and those who seek common cause with public sector workers.

In conclusion, the key question is the existence of a committed relationship and the financial dependence and/or interdependence of that partner; the key factor is not the presence or absence of a marriage certificate or the sexuality of the bereaved person. We have an opportunity to indicate that we want to go down a non-discriminatory path, which is in keeping with best practice in the private and public sectors in this day and age. I warmly commend amendment (b) to motion No. 4 to the House.

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3.52 pm

Mr. Robin Cook: We have had a very good debate and I am glad that the time allowed for the debate has permitted all those with selected amendments to speak to them.

I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I am unable to respond to all the questions that were put to me in the time available. However, I shall endeavour to respond in writing to all Members who put questions to me. I shall try to respond to some of the questions from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who asked one or two questions of detail.

First—I appreciate that this is important in terms of how Members may approach the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley)—the hon. Lady asked about the rates of pay and the job descriptions. It would be our understanding that the Department of Finance and Administration would implement, broadly speaking, the rates of pay as set out in appendix E. We would envisage that being done within the range of a band of, perhaps, £2,000 above to £2,000 below the median point set out in appendix E, so there would be some flexibility for Members to nominate the particular figure for a member of staff.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton asked also about insurance. I reassure her that employer's liability and personal accident will continue to be centrally covered. Of course local matters, such as insurance cover for the structure and contents of a constituency office, will be for Members to find out of the incidental expenses provision, which, again, is a matter to bear in mind when considering the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush.

I say to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, and others who took part in the debate, that I very much welcome the support that has been shown for the Speaker's advisory panel and the recognition that that will provide us with a degree of flexibility to look at some of the difficult questions that arise in the process of transition. I welcome also the maturity shown in the debate and the recognition that there are bound to be teething problems. Inevitably, there will be difficult cases and it is right that, through the advisory panel, we should have the mechanism to consider these and, through the Speaker, the ability to assist in putting them right and providing a remedy.

In terms of the first two amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), on consultancies, I say that, in the event that she does not press them, I will undertake that they are considered early within the advisory panel to consider what remedy is available to us. Her amendments, and the others before the House, are House matters.

Mrs. Lait: Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr. Cook: If the hon. Lady will be very brief, I will give way, but I only have five minutes.

Mrs. Lait: That is absolutely understood and I will be brief. What about the contracts that we already have with consultants? If we move immediately to the new pay scale, will we have to break those contracts?

Mr. Cook: There is specific provision in the SSRB report for central assistance to Members who find that

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they have legally binding contractual commitments, be it with an IT provider, a member of staff or a consultancy. Those individual cases will be considered to see if we can find a way forward.

The amendments are, of course, for the House to decide. On a number of them, I offer no view to the House. However, there are some on which I would invite the House to reflect before supporting them. I must say to the hon. Member for Beckenham that that applies very strongly to her amendment (l) on the IT package. It would be impractical for us to enter into the individual commitments that she wants. If we are to have a centrally funded and managed procurement system, we cannot at the same time, in practical terms, provide that degree of individual response. I hope that she will not press that amendment.

On the amendment from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, we take no view. It is for the House to decide and for Members to judge in the light of their experience.

I have already told my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) that I am willing to put the additional cost to the SSRB and to invite them to respond urgently. I am pleased that he regards that as a tempting offer; I hope that I can tempt him further. [Laughter.] I hope that I can prove more tempting to my hon. Friend than the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton. If he does push his amendment, we will have to explain and justify to the public a 42 per cent. increase that does not proceed from any independent assessment. Personally, I would feel much more comfortable if we first went through such a process.

I invite other Members to join me in resisting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). As I understood his speech, he believes that we are paid too much and should be paid less. The effect of the amendment, of course, would be to pay us more. This is what, in an earlier phase of his career, he would have described as an inherent contradiction in the system. I would strongly suggest that he not press his amendment; otherwise we may be obliged to advise the electors of Sunderland, South that he believes that Members of Parliament should be paid more.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) spoke with authority as a trustee, and I fully respect that, but the SSRB considered and rejected the course of action that he proposed, and the Government have grave concerns about the impact on public spending if the proposal were to become a bargaining point across the public sector.

Finally, we should not lose sight of the fact that the overall package is a dramatic change for the better. It involves higher ceilings for our staff costs, it involves better pay for the great majority of Members' staff and it gives a sound basis for access to modern technology. Whatever view hon. Members may form on the amendments, I very much hope that they will support the proposals, so that we can bring the support services of the House into the 21st century and enable us to serve our constituents better.

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It being Four o'clock, Mr. Speaker pursuant to Order [this day], put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.

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