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Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I have some sympathy with the position of the Christian Brethren, but I find it difficult to understand what leads them to that conclusion. Can the hon. Gentleman enlighten me about the biblical authority on which it is based, so that I can appreciate the fundamental point to which they object?

Mr. Flight: I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman was capable of a better contribution. I am not a member of the Plymouth Brethren. The point of principle is clear, and the exact biblical references are set out in their substantial literature.

Mrs. Browning: I am not a member of the Plymouth Brethren, but the reference is Romans 13.1.

Mr. Flight: I thank my hon. Friend.

As the Minister said, the proposals were not supported in Committee, and further discussions are required to work out what will satisfy all parties. The failsafe fund would have a very conservative investment approach, so, contrary to her comments, there would be no equity risk. Moreover, the amount that people put into it would have to be sufficient to avoid the possibility of their drawing too much of it prior to death, then becoming dependent on income support.

The Minister cited as a basic principle a concept that is in fact untrue, as she has accepted on other occasions. A standard guaranteed annuity in no way provides certainty of retirement income. For example, if we face a period of very high inflation resulting from oil prices rocketing because of the tragic middle east situation, a guaranteed annuity could easily become of minimal worth. It is potentially a less secure way of providing for certainty of income in old age than a failsafe fund that can widen its investments. The principle that a guaranteed annuity provides certainty is inaccurate—it provides no certainty of real income, but merely a certainty of a nominal income.

In essence, the amendments pursue the position reached by the Committee to its logical and sensible conclusion—to leave the Revenue to work out a legal framework for arrangements that meet the Brethren's religious conscience. It is more than time that the issue was settled.

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It is not good enough simply to go on saying, "We'll go on talking; we'd like to do something about it." That is disingenuous.

There was a marked lack of conviction in the Minister's comments about annuities that are not directly relevant. We shall no doubt debate those in due course.

12.15 pm

Mrs. Browning: Obviously, I support my hon. Friend, as I, too, put my name to this group of amendments.

On several occasions the Minister referred to the group of amendments as having been tabled by "hon. Members opposite". She and other hon. Members should be aware that the amendments were also tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), whose knowledge and experience of pension matters probably exceeds that of any other Back Bencher on either side of the House. When the relevant amendments were voted on in Committee—where the Government clearly had a majority—only four Labour Members voted, so my amendments received a degree of cross-party support.

Ruth Kelly: I should make it clear that the members of a Committee on a private Member's Bill are chosen by the hon. Member who is promoting it, so of course the Government did not have a majority.

Mrs. Browning: When the vote was taken, the majority in favour of the amendments arose as a result of the abstention of Labour Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) is younger that me, so he probably has a more finely-tuned memory.

Mr. Curry: My life expectancy is, I believe, going up with every year that I continue to survive.

To clarify the position, the promoter of a private Member's Bill is obliged to select a Committee membership that respects the balance of forces in the Chamber. When I selected my Bill Committee, I could not select all its Labour Members from those who participated on Second Reading, because not enough had done so, so I was obliged to trawl more widely. I even chose a Parliamentary Private Secretary, which was an example of unaccustomed generosity.

Mrs. Browning: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. That proves my point.

I want to press my case with the Minister. As the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) said, in redrafting the Bill prior to Report my right hon. and hon. Friends and I said that we were willing to allow the Government to make some progress. The Government are consulting on the subject and I am aware of the Plymouth Brethren's most generous contribution to the Government's paper as an attempt to offer ways forward.

I repeat a point that was made in Committee. The United Kingdom is not unique in this respect. The Brethren have a presence in other countries such as America and Australia, whose legislatures have had similar problems, especially in relation to revenue services, but they have found ways forward. Thanks to the last Conservative Government, the UK pioneered the way in private pensions. Given that other countries have found a way round the difficulty and enabled all parts of their communities, including minorities, to participate in

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providing for their retirement, it is extraordinary that the Government are unable to find a practical and pragmatic way forward to accommodate the needs of this minority in line with the checks and balances required by the Inland Revenue.

The amendment is helpful as it would allow the matter to be decided later in the regulatory process. However, discussions have taken place and there are clear examples from abroad that the Government could call upon to ascertain how other countries have proceeded. It should not be beyond the wit of man to make some pretty urgent progress on such an important issue.

I hope that the Government will start seeking opportunities to find solutions, rather than considering old arguments which suggest that nothing can be done. I hope also that the Minister will take in good faith the motivation underlying the amendments. The supporters of the amendments are trying to make progress. We are looking for more from the Minister than her assurance that there will be more talks. Clearly, there will need to be more talks, but we would like those talks to result in positive action.

Dr. Cable: I support the way in which the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) spoke to the amendment. We understand that the Government have serious problems with the Bill. There are many serious arguments that they can bring to bear. The Minister advanced many of the arguments adequately on Second Reading and in Committee. However, the way in which the Government have handled the issue is unworthy of them. I am referring to the history of the way in which they have dealt with the religious minority that we are considering, and not only to the amendments.

It is not merely a matter of there being cross-party consensus. Those who are trying to achieve change are acting in an entirely disinterested way. A point not yet made today but which was made in Committee is that the Brethren do not vote. None of us has any self-interest in pursuing this line of action. We are acting to preserve the interests of a small minority that rightly or wrongly feels strongly about the issue before us.

We are talking about conscientious objection. I have a rather colourful and varied spiritual CV. In an earlier part of my life I was a Quaker. Most of my fellow Quakers at that time had a conscientious objection to war. This country has long accepted that they should opt out of such obligations without national defence collapsing.

The Inland Revenue seems unable to accept that a small minority can find a way out of the annuities regulations without the revenue base of the country collapsing. That shows a complete lack of imagination and flexibility. I thought that the Minister would say, "We see problems with the failsafe mechanism, but I accept that the process has taken far too long. I will work with the Inland Revenue to find an expeditious solution to the problem." That is what we want the hon. Lady to say.

I do not accept the amendment in all its details, but I hope that the Minister will be a little more positive and constructive than she has been so far.

Mr. Curry: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) for

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her gallantry. It was slightly excessive gallantry, as I am older than her. I would not wish the House to be misled on that demographic phenomenon, especially as it affects my life expectancy. The advantage of being older than my hon. Friend is that I have an enhanced life expectancy. The exponential consequences are wonderfully biblical.

There is no point in pretending that the amendments proposed by my hon. Friends and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) are not at odds with the principle of the Bill. We might as well be clear about that. I have rested the Bill upon the continued obligation to buy an annuity to satisfy the Government's need that people should remain out of welfare and that provision made with the benefit of tax concessions should be devoted to the purposes for which the concession was made in the first instance. In that sense, what is being proposed clearly runs counter to one of the underlying principles in the Bill. I sought to present a Bill that does not confront the Government's preoccupations, but which will work with the grain of them.

I recognise the sense of frustration that after such a long time there is still not an outcome. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) tabled the amendments without regarding them as being impeccable in every way. I have yet to encounter a private Member's Bill that did not contain technical flaws; that is the nature of the beast. However, at some stage we must precipitate a more active response from the Government. I am sure that the purpose of the amendments is to bring about such a response.

The Minister accepts that there is a genuine attempt to address a problem. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, the Christian Brethren are a part of his electorate, but they are not part of his electors. We are all in that situation. The Minister said that she understands the situation and that she would like to find a way through it. We accept that good will has been expressed on both sides of the House. There is not a tricky mechanism in the Bill to try to achieve a certain purpose. The Bill is specific in its functions. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs said to the Government, "Find a way of doing this."

We have all sought some landing lights from the Government. The Minister's speech was aspirational. What she aspired to was welcome. We all want to find an answer. If she were able to give us something a little more concrete in terms of timetabling and the means by which engagement will take place—some sort of structure by which she hopes to find a way through—I am sure that we would all be greatly reassured. The purpose of the amendments is not to drive a coach and horses through the Bill, but to address a problem that has dragged on for a very long time. In a mature democracy such as ours, it should be possible to find a solution.

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