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Pension Service

18. Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the new pension service in meeting the needs of pensioners. [45029]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): It is very early days yet, but we are committed to making a real difference to the lives of pensioners. The pension service, which was formally launched on 1 April 2002, replaced Benefits Agency services for pensioners and will provide a better service that is tailored to pensioners' needs.

Mr. Prisk: I am grateful for that short reply from the Minister. Does he agree that one welcome aim of the pension service is its stated intention to simplify the pension system, but does he share my concern that simply shortening the forms and reducing the number of questions will not achieve that aim? Does he not accept that changing the forms will simply constitute window dressing if he is not prepared to change the means-testing system itself?

Mr. McCartney: I had another two pages to my answer, which I shall send to the hon. Gentleman.

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The pension service is the first attempt by any Government in history to establish a dedicated single unit that operates throughout the country, providing services not just for today's pensioners but for those approaching pensionable age. It is an advocacy service that not only

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provides day-to-day services and pensions and other advice, but seeks out pensioners in the community and works with them to increase their income and access to services. It is also working with older people to design a service to meet their needs.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that, quite properly, the Government delayed by one day the Second Reading of the Enterprise Bill—by any measure, a very substantial Bill—precisely to allow the tabling of a reasoned amendment. Since then, in preparation for tomorrow's Committee proceedings, we in the official Opposition have worked on the assumption that the Bill's clauses will be dealt with in the normal sequence, and we had no reason to believe otherwise. To our shock, Mr. Speaker, and no doubt to yours, we found out on Friday that the Government have arbitrarily, and without consultation, changed tomorrow's order of consideration in Committee in such a way that no one could reasonably prepare the tabling of amendments to certain later clauses, consideration of which has now been brought forward.

That affects not only the position of the official Opposition, but of legitimate outside interests, which have been similarly caught unawares by this apparently underhand move by the Government. Is there anything that you can do, Mr. Speaker, to protect the House and Members, particularly those who participate in Standing Committee, so that we can ensure that this sort of thing does not happen; otherwise, we will be left in the invidious position whereby no one will be able properly and legitimately to prepare amendments for Committee. I look to you for guidance and protection, because this is yet another typical example of the Government's cavalier attitude to the House and its Committees.

Mr. Speaker: If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the order of business, he will see that the Enterprise Bill

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Programming Sub-Committee meets at 7 o'clock this evening. That is an opportunity for the official Opposition—and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats—to raise this matter, so my strong advice is that a good attendance is required.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your help, guidance and clarification on business later today. Will you confirm and clarify my understanding that, at 7 o'clock—when we begin consideration of the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill—the 10 o'clock motion, which cannot be debated, will be put? Is there any vehicle by which hon. Members who have consistently resisted that grubby little measure—born of a clandestine and wholly illegitimate grouping of the City of London corporation and Ministers—might ensure that it is rightly the subject of a free vote? Certain hon. Members are under the illusion that it is Government business, and that they might somehow gain preferment, but they will not.

There is also a serious parliamentary point at issue. This is a private Bill and according to the traditions of the House, which you jealously safeguard, the vote, by definition, is a free vote, but the plot is that it is not. The nod and wink from those on the Treasury Bench is that Members should be present to provide parliamentary time through the night to see this squalid little measure through.

I hope that, at 7 o'clock, we can have the opportunity, first, to prove that all that I have described is the case and to highlight that and, secondly, to persuade colleagues, particularly Labour Members who year after year in opposition derided the City of London, but are now—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has put his case.

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Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill (Programme)

3.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

I expect the official Opposition to oppose the motion, as they do all programme motions, as a matter of principle. Due to the circumstances of the Bill, it is incumbent on me to give the House a brief explanation of why the Government think the motion appropriate. First, the business has been given this allocation of time because the Lords amendments will deliver changes called for by the Northern Ireland parties and the Opposition. Secondly, by my calculation, the whole debate in the other place—Second Reading, Committee and Third Reading—took two hours and 59 minutes, which is short of the time that we have given the House to consider the amendments this afternoon.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I apologise for intervening, but will my hon. Friend, immediately or during the debate, clarify a point relating to the Bill and the matters that are the subject of the first group of amendments? I understand and have no difficulty with the fact that the Bill rightly requires greater evidence of who people are, their qualifications and where they reside than is the case for the rest of the United Kingdom, but there is a difference between that and having different criteria for who can vote.

I want clarification. The amendments would require people to indicate where else they might be registered in the United Kingdom for electoral purposes, which is perfectly understandable and correct. That will not in any way alter the law, which I understand spans the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whereby people such as the Minister and colleagues from Northern Ireland may be registered to vote in London borough elections. No doubt they are tempted to vote Labour on 2 May. How will the Bill affect those with dual residence and dual rights to vote in municipal elections—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are debating the programme motion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will ask his question when we debate the Bill itself.

Mr. Browne: As you rightly point out, Mr. Speaker, the issue that my hon. Friend raises is germane to the amendments—indeed, it occupied our time in Committee

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more than once—and I am sure that it will be debated at length. If he catches your eye, he will be able to contribute on that relevant issue.

I speak only to the programme motion, and I was making my second and last point. The whole debate in the other place accounted for less time than the Government are allowing for the consideration of these amendments in this House.

3.40 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): The Government do some extraordinary things, and they sometimes make colossal fools of themselves. I am afraid that they are making colossal fools of themselves by moving this timetable motion on these Lords amendments. If someone is to be made a fool of, it is important that it is the Government who make fools of themselves and do not succeed in making a fool of Parliament, because it is the Government's fault and not Parliament's. I want to dwell for a couple of minutes on the background to the motion.

There are two reasons why it is extraordinary to introduce a programme motion on these amendments. First, there is no longer any controversy over the subjects dealt with in the Lords amendments between the Government and the Opposition, or between the Government and any hon. Member. As everyone knows, the Government belatedly, but nevertheless effectively, accepted the views put to them by every other party in the House—the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats, and every Northern Ireland party including the Social Democratic and Labour party. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). In my experience in the House, on 99 occasions out of 100 the SDLP vote with the Labour party, in government or in opposition. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wants to tell us that it is 98.2 per cent. of the time, I am perfectly prepared to give way to him and have the facts corrected.

It is most extraordinary to introduce a programme motion in those circumstances. The House will recall that it was in the Irish context that the system of programme motions was introduced in the 1880s, when the honourable predecessors of the hon. Member for South Down, the Irish parliamentary party under Parnell's brilliant leadership, succeeded in extracting important concessions from the Governments of the day, both Liberal and Conservative, by the use of aggressive filibustering. As Parliament virtually came to a halt at that time, for the first occasion in its then 600-year history some element of timetabling was introduced into its procedures.

From that time forth, including when most of us arrived in the House, until the new Labour Government appeared in 1997, the programme motion was regarded as exceptional, undesirable and something that we would accept only reluctantly to meet the danger of an abuse by people filibustering and holding up business unreasonably. Anyone who came to the House with a programme motion had to make an exceptional case. The onus was always on the Government to make an exceptional case, and to make it clear that the circumstances were such as to justify what by consensus of the whole House—that was true in my first two Parliaments—was regarded as an inherently obnoxious and undesirable procedure.

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Part of the Government's devastating and obnoxious constitutional legacy will have been to introduce what has always been regarded in the House as an undesirable constraint on the freedom of Parliament and on its ability to do its essential job, which is to take its own time according to its own judgment to debate and consider the legislative proposals of the Government of the day. That tradition has been crudely set aside by the Government, who have benefited from their vast majority. They believe that they can do anything and get away with it.

For a long time, programme motions were seen as an exceptional measure, but they have now become a regular procedure. The Government's use of such a motion this afternoon shows that there is no rhyme or reason to it. There may be one explanation, which I shall put to the Minister and he can tell me whether it is correct. I have searched my mind to discover what possible function a programme motion could have, given that the whole House is in agreement, as the Government have reluctantly accepted the substance of the Lords amendments.

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