State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister. It is useful to have elucidation, although I am not absolutely sure that it is right in relation to what could be the downrating of an entitlement after a period of incarceration. I believe that we are removing double provision at the possible expense of creating double penalty, although that is perhaps how the prisoner would see it. In no sense do we intend to produce a special regime for prisoners. We simply wish to comment on the fact that had they not been in prison paying their dues to society—

Mr. McCartney: This is not double jeopardy. Whether people are in prison or not is irrelevant because a fresh application is made, the resolution of which will be determined by the circumstances. It is a fresh application because their qualification has been suspended. They have been found guilty of a criminal act and imprisoned. At that point, their qualification and right to credit ceases and can only recommence when they come out of prison. When they are out of prison, their record is irrelevant to the decision-making process on pension credit. Their financial circumstances will determine the level of minimum income guarantee and whether any credits should be paid in reward.

Mr. Boswell: It will not assist the Committee to have a huge and disproportionate spat, but the Minister may not have helped by using the word ''suspended''. The essence of his case is that there was an entitlement that stopped on incarceration. A new entitlement is available after incarceration that will be determined by the circumstances involved. I do not think that that is a distortion, but I cannot argue that it is a coherent and logical position. The entitlement undergoes a suspension rather than a cessation followed by a recommencement or fresh assessment—a fresh start.

I simply record that if one took two persons who started with the same entitlement to pension credit on a particular day, and whose assessment periods were conventionally set at five years each, one of them may, in the interim, have had an accession of resources—perfectly legitimate ones, not the proceeds of crime. They may both, coincidentally, have had the same accession of resources; but if one of the two had gone to prison, that person would find themselves, willy-nilly, obliged to start again. Having examined the procedure for the assessment period, I imagine that relatively few people would go to the Department and say, ''We think that we have come into a fortune and don't want the pension credit and we would like to be reassessed'', with the inference that they go back to zero. However, the person who has been incarcerated would be forced to do that.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Is not the point that people incarcerated in prison have disqualified themselves from the benefit in the meantime? The idea that those people should be entitled to the same treatment as those who have not disqualified themselves is absurd.

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Mr. Boswell: That is an interesting point. The hon. Gentleman is giving what many of us might feel is the moral case for that disqualification. I am feeling after issues of law, although I do so as a lay person rather than a lawyer. If two people were under the same regime—unless and until they wished to make an application for a fresh assessment—and one of them was imprisoned, the latter would have the by-product of losing some of his or her entitlement without any other change in circumstances. The Committee should at least pause on that.

I do not wish that point to be understood as an argument for some sort of outdoor relief for those who commit crimes, and in fairness the Minister has not caricatured it that way. I am just saying that it is an interesting point. That is the kind of detail that needs attention. We must decide whether it is the suspension of a benefit that applies elsewhere or a fresh start brought about by the criminal's fault and the fact that he or she went to prison, as the hon. Gentleman perfectly reasonably says. I do not want to labour the point, but it has at least been useful to draw out those issues. Some of them may require a little attention before the final regulations, and there is time enough for that.

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend's points have some relevance. It is important that when people come out from prison they have minimal reason to re-offend. It will surely be conducive to staying on the straight and narrow if they have benefit entitlement as soon as they come out from prison.

Mr. Boswell: I accept that, but equally I take it as self-evident that the arrangements for discharge from prison will enable them to pick up any benefit entitlement as rapidly as possible. We have spent quite a lot of time on the issue. It is a small one, but sometimes it is the small ones—the grit in the shoe—that niggle. We were right to raise it, but I do not wish to persist with it, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Boswell: We have been talking in detail about a very small proportion of the total pension credit fund. As we let the clause go on its way, it will not escape the Committee that, for reasons that we have already discussed, we are somewhat attenuated this afternoon. I hope that we will conduct a sensible discussion on the clause. As well as the little exchanges that we have just had, we have heard valuable assurances from the Government on the approach to income, partial contribution records, cases in which people are not entitled to the full basic pension and making up the full amount.

In a sense, this is the central clause of the Bill. It has generated many issues, but for a variety of reasons they have not yet all been fully squeezed out. They are perfectly sensible issues that need not necessarily generate huge political controversy, but it is important that a Government mindful of human

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rights obligations and what is fair both to all pensioners and between pensioners should reflect on them. I simply put down a marker for later debates on those subjects. Although we have had a good rattle through the greater part of today's considerations, we have not yet quite got to the end of the story.

Mr. McCartney: I do not wish to detain the Committee much longer. Clause 3 is a key building block of the Bill, and as a consequence it is a significantly detailed part of it. Not many amendments were tabled but despite that, and because of the Chairman's tolerance, we have had a wide-ranging debate on the concepts and principles of the clause. The clause has enabled my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and me to be completely open and frank, and will allow us to lead debate on further subjects under clauses 15, 16 and beyond, so that Members are clear about them. We have provided a further written note on clause 3, to help hon. Members with regard to clauses 15 and 16.

Although not many hon. Members have taken part in our discussion, it has been a quality debate. I am pleased that we have reached clause 3, and I hope that it will remain in the Bill because many pensioners and pensioners' organisations have been waiting a generation for its provisions.

The Bill will end poverty, give people assurances about their security in old age and for the first time ever it will provide a reward for savings and small second private pensions. This has been a long time coming. Some of us have been campaigning for it for generations, but I am pleased that, at 3.35 pm today, we have finally achieved it. I look forward to moving on to clause 4—and beyond.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4


Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 27, in page 3, line 38, at end insert

    'and in the event of a difference of opinion between those parties to that couple, then that person with an income profile likely to give rise to the higher amount of pension credit shall be deemed to be the claimant'.

I do not know whether antiquarians who are still on the Labour Benches remember clause four—I hope that they do—but I always feel an almost irresistible urge when I see—

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) wrote it.

Mr. Boswell: It would concern me even more if the hon. Member for Dagenham still believed in it, because his leader does not. If we continued along these lines I think that you, Mr. Griffiths, would feel that we were being tempted. I intended merely to make the jocular remark that whenever I see a clause 4, I feel the urge to amend it.

I have no major conceptual problem with this clause. I am not about to suggest that the red hordes are going to march down Whitehall, or anything like that—indeed, perish the thought, with the present

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Government. However, we can, perhaps, leave that topic to another day.

I wish to raise two serious issues that will arise with regard to different amendments. Such issues sometimes arise when one is addressing apparently simple and technical clauses, such as this one. I sometimes think about such matters in the small hours of the night. I hope that Committee members will not think that I spend all of the small hours reflecting on the State Pension Credit Bill, but occasionally one wakes up—after a nightmare, for example—and thinks about something that one had not thought about before.

As I have said, there are a couple of serious issues, particularly with regard to this amendment, that deserve a little bit of the Committee's time. The concept of the clause is not silly. Its primary aim is to prevent the payment of more than one pension credit to a benefit unit. I do not think that we will argue about that at all; it is clear that that will happen.

However, I should perhaps add that there is a wider issue here, which I have been concerned about. Following the advances that were made by the previous Conservative Government in the sphere of independent taxation—although I know that the Minister of State does not always feel that advances have ever been made by any of his political opponents—this measure begins to row us back towards a world in which people are seen and treated as one unit for the purpose of their income, bearing in mind that this is an income-related benefit. I record that but I will not necessarily debate it further, as that is the decision that the Government have made.

With regard to the purpose of amendment No. 27, two things need to be discussed. First, what is a couple? That came in for some comments from Help the Aged. I assume that a couple are usually—but, perhaps, not exclusively—two people of different sexes who are either married or cohabiting, and are therefore treated as a single benefit unit—to use the term of art—and that those would be the people who would be entitled to a single pension credit. However, Help the Aged makes a rather terse comment in relation to clause 2, which also applies here:

    ''Married/unmarried couples is always good for domestic tension. Will (say) two older sisters living in one household be two singles or one couple?''

My understanding is that they will be two singles, but it is important that the Minister of State should explain that.

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