State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Shame.

Mr. Boswell: Why should that be a shame? The hon. Gentleman obviously disagrees with his Minister, whom I heard say that he wanted people to take up the benefit. The benefit is universal, although I remarked that it is not well targeted.

The Chairman: Order. I have listened patiently to the debate, and it is time to return to the issue in contention, which is leaving out the word ''state'' from the clause.

Mr. Boswell: I am rather inclined to agree with you, Mr. Griffiths. We have had a good rattle around several wider issues, but as the late and much lamented Frankie Howerd used to say, let us get back to the prologue: we want to know whether the word should be in or out, and the Minister's thinking on that.

I have spoken to amendment No. 9 and the other identical amendments, and I shall touch on amendment No. 18, which is in the names of my

Column Number: 10

hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and I. We argue that the credit should be publicised under the title ''pension credit''. If, as I understand it, that is what everyone wants and what it will be called, why is it not called that in the Bill?

There are wider issues that you, Mr. Griffiths, wisely advised me not to address when discussing the programme resolution. I shall not discuss them at length, but there are worries about the Bill, even in quarters that are not tied or beholden to the Conservative party, such as among people with no party affiliations who are experts in the interests of older people. As recently as this morning a briefing from Help the Aged arrived on my desk—as, I am sure, it did on the desks of other Committee members—and we might have occasion to refer to it again, in different places and at appropriate times, when we address further relevant amendments.

The briefing states—this refers back to the general issue—that the new money that is now promised to pensioners is very welcome. I am glad that it is generous in acknowledging that. It also states that the matter under discussion makes a significant difference to the architecture of pension provision that was outlined in the 1998 Green Paper but that, if those new resources had then been on the table, a better solution than the pension credit proposal could have been in prospect. That is an interesting point.

Meanwhile, the Bill must be dealt with. With regard to it, the letter from Help the Aged states that, despite the attentions of the House of Lords and the Select Committee, its shape remains more or less as originally drafted, and that Help the Aged remains rather less than impressed. That comment comes from a highly responsible, well regarded and entirely independent and neutral organisation. That is the best thing that it can say about the Bill, despite the fact that it gives more money to pensioners. That does not constitute a ringing endorsement—and, in essence, that is why we are expressing concerns about the Bill.

While making some general comments, Help the Aged also makes points about the titling of the Bill, which are of particular relevance to this amendment. It is much more critical than I have been in our amendments. It states:

    ''The titling of the new policy is poorly described.''

It continues:

    ''The nomenclature of the Bill is an additional confusion. Under the general title of Pension Credit, the Bill is actually implementing two overlapping schemes with similar yet different applications.''

Those schemes are the guarantee credit and the savings credit and, as we will return to them later, it is not necessary to read out the entire text now.

Help the Aged then states, with regard to points that I have not referred to in my amendments:

    '''Credit' is an off-putting word which some older people will regard with suspicion, and the Savings Credit might be more honestly called an ameliorated tax on savings.''

Those are Help the Aged's words, not mine.

The Minister must reflect on his situation as, in parliamentary terms, his position behind him is crumbling, and there is great concern among

Column Number: 11

pensioners across the field about whether this is the right strategic approach. He is bolting it on to the Government by specifically entitling it the state pension credit. By doing so, he is adding further to the complexity, which is one of the features to which we object—and to which our amendments are addressed.

A monster of complexity has been created in the Bill. If I were a Minister, I would wish to distance myself from it and pass on, but the Minister is using the full resources of the state to say, ''It's all our responsibility; aren't we proud of it?'' That is inappropriate, given that so many people—not all of them in my party—have serious reservations.

It is fine to spend money, and it is good to give money to pensioners. I am not arguing about those issues; they are Aunt Sallys, which the Minister occasionally attempts to put up. What we are saying is, ''If you are going to do that, it might not be the most appropriate way of doing it. It might not get to the people who most need it, and there might be other ways to approach it and deal with it.''

The Minister must explain his approach, and we will ask him to do so throughout these debates. The specific point of the amendment is to ask a question: why—without precedent in social security legislation, as far as I am aware, and without need in terms of its efficiency, and without any appropriateness in terms of a short title on which to sell what is a very difficult concept for people to grasp—does he have to insert the word ''state'', when it seems to me, in this case at least, to serve no useful purpose?

The Chairman: Before we start the debate I should say that I have called the hon. Member for Daventry to order once or twice, but I could have done so many more times. I decided to let him speak because he was putting the debate in its context, but many of his remarks were more suited to a clause stand part debate than to the amendment. From now on, I shall be stricter.

11 am

Mr. Clappison: I am sure that we will all take that fair injunction to heart. I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry on what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths.

I should like to supplement the excellent points raised by my hon. Friend, who adverted to the sketches of the late Frankie Howerd. If I remember correctly, the narrator of the prologue was followed or interrupted by the soothsayer, who came on with tales of woe and doom. The Committee will be relieved to hear that I shall not assume that function this morning. To set the scene, we had an important debate about the crisis in funded pensions and the fact that more and more of our elderly people will rely on means-tested benefits rather than funded pensions. Our concerns on the subject are encompassed in the amendment.

Column Number: 12

I wish to make a simple plea about nomenclature, which is the subject of the group of amendments. I hope that, when we decide on the name attached to the payment, there will be a degree of continuity. I hope that the public can become accustomed to it, and that it will not change in a short time. That plea is encompassed in the amendments, particularly amendment No. 18, which mentions how the credit is to be publicised. It is the way of Governments—this Government are certainly not immune—to make changes to the names of payments and benefits, make a few marginal changes to them, and then launch them as entirely new propositions. The result, time and again, is that the public become thoroughly confused about such benefits. The Minister looks a bit disgruntled at that.

Mr. McCartney: Name one.

Mr. Clappison: Name one? The Minister tempts me. Between them, the working families tax credit and the children's tax credit are on their sixth configuration. There has been the working families tax credit, the employment tax credit and the working tax credit; and the children's tax credit, the integrated children's tax credit and the child tax credit. Income support became the minimum income guarantee and will now become the state pension credit. I hope that that is enough for the Minister, and that he will not tempt us by saying that there may be more to follow.

I hope that the name of the credit will give some continuity, and that the public will become accustomed to it. Otherwise, we will be in danger of adding the complexity of different names to the complexity of the provisions of the Bill. That will affect take-up, an important subject that we will consider under a later group of amendments. There may well be a link between take-up and familiarity with the credit. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that we will not have the constant change we experienced with the minimum income guarantee and other credits.

Mr. McCartney: First, I should say to the hon. Members for Daventry and for Hertsmere—have I got that right? [Hon. Members: ''Yes.''] I shall try to make sure that I get their constituencies right by the end of the Committee. This is not so much a genuine debate about the name as a mini Second Reading debate, in which the Conservatives have taken the usual well-worn path. I will respond to general issues about whether the credit can work, means testing and the core of the amendments, then we might not have to raise these issues later on in Committee.

The hon. Member for Daventry says that he finds it difficult to understand the Bill and respond to it in a positive way. I do not. The game was given away on 7 March 2002 when the shadow Secretary of State wrote to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), who used to be Under-Secretary at the then Department of Social Security in the last Conservative Administration, to ask him to do some work. I quote from the note:

    ''Here is the material I promised you about a funded alternative to the basic state pension.''

Column Number: 13

The Conservatives do not want pension credit because that is based on an enhancement of the basic state pension, which they want to get rid of. They want to privatise the basic state pension, as is clear in the first line of that letter.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 16 April 2002