State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Maria Eagle: We naturally considered whether we could cope with that before introducing the Bill. We have no reason to think that our systems would be unable to cope.

I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) was talking about clause 9, but he mentioned section 7(4) so I think that he was referring to clause 10. For a moment, I thought that he had missed his chance to talk about an earlier clause. He referred to complexity and take-up problems.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. May we have some clarification? I thought that we were on clause 10.

The Chairman: We are. The Under-Secretary said that she felt that some of the substance of the speech by the hon. Member for Newark was on clause 9, but that he then referred to something in clause 10.

Maria Eagle: I apologise to the hon. Member for Canterbury if I am not speaking clearly enough. I have a bit of a throat at the moment, but will do my best to speak clearly so that he does not misunderstand what I say.

The hon. Member for Newark again raised the take-up issue. He asked how many pensioners were to have an assessed income period of five years given that there are some circumstances in which it could be shorter. We think that the vast majority of pensioners over 65 will have that assessed income period, and a small minority will have a shorter assessed income period. An example of those who may have a shorter period are those awaiting income streams on retirement, which have not yet been fixed. After they have been fixed, those people can go on to a five year assessment. We may not be able to fix an assessed income period for those with fluctuating foreign pensions. We do not know how many of them there will be until we have worked out the detail of the regulations, but we think that the number will be small.

The vast majority of pensioners will experience a claims procedure that has to happen much less frequently. They will see upratings in their retirement provision, which will happen automatically. In some cases, that may result in changes to the savings credit that people receive without them having to go through the process of filling in another form or having onerous obligations to report minuscule changes in income. From a pensioner's point of view, that experience will be less intrusive and more acceptable.

We have tried to make it easier for people to claim the minimum income guarantee; for example, we have reduced the claim form from 40 to 10 pages. We are still trying to reduce the types of forms that elderly people in particular have to fill in, because we know that that can be onerous.

Once pension credit has been introduced, we think that the experience of pensioners will be much more acceptable, and on that basis we hope to increase

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take-up, if that is what puts people off from claiming entitlement. We stress that the provision is an entitlement, not a favour. We want to ensure that those who are entitled apply. I hope that I have dealt with some points that were raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

Administration

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

Maria Eagle: I need not detain the Committee long on the clause, and shall deal it with it formally. The clause's purpose is to introduce schedule 1, which we shall reach in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12

Polygamous marriages

5.15 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I beg to move amendment No. 33, in page 8, line 16, at end add

    'except in cases where a party to a polygamous marriage has established an entitlement to basic state pension in their own right'.

It seems that it is up to me to speak about polygamy.

Mr. McCartney: I can think of no one better to do it.

Mr. Clappison: I am not one of the 200 people to whom the provision will apply.

Mr. Webb: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is talking about 200 polygamous pensioners?

Mr. Clappison: It is a good question whether the 200 refers to units of polygamy, polygamous pensioners or polygamous non-pensioners. I take that figure because it was given in the House of Lords as the number of people to whom the provision could possibly apply. That was an interesting debate, because we also discussed the difference between polygamy and polyandry, which refers to a wife with more than one husband. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary says that that is much more interesting. She will be interested to hear that polyandry is prevalent in several parts of India, as we found out in the debate.

A distinct type of polyandry is also practised in Tibet, where a woman who marries the oldest brother of a family may also take his brother as her partner. I do not know what term would be applied to a collection of husbands. Perhaps it would be called a harem or something like that. Some would just call it bad luck.

The purpose of the amendment is to probe polygamy, if that is the right way of putting it. The Bill leaves the matter to regulations. I understand that the regulations are already made in respect of minimum income guarantee. The basic approach in such cases will be to ensure that the guarantee part of

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the pension credit is paid, although it would be interesting to hear more detail from the Under-Secretary as to how much will be paid, and to whom. The amendment deals with subsection (4), which is interesting. It says:

    ''Except in relation to the amount of the standard minimum guarantee, any power to prescribe amounts by virtue of this section includes power to prescribe nil as an amount.''

As that does not apply to the minimum guarantee, the provision must create the power to prescribe nil in respect of the savings element of the pension credit. It would be an interesting exercise to tell someone that they were entitled to something, but that the amount would be prescribed as nil. I should like to hear in what circumstances someone would be prescribed nil as an amount, and I wonder whether the Under-Secretary can throw light on how the provision will apply. We apprehend that it will be relevant to only a limited number of people. For various reasons they are likely in many cases to have low savings and an incomplete pension record, and may be entitled to only the standard minimum income guarantee.

Maria Eagle: I hope that I can assist the Committee, although the hon. Gentleman has removed all the fun that I was going to have describing polyandry, but that is probably just as well.

Mr. Clappison: I have not taken away all the fun, because one matter that was left mysterious in the House of Lords debate was the meaning of polygyny. That was not explained. If the Under-Secretary can explain what that is, I shall listen with rapt attention.

Maria Eagle: I do not have my dictionary with me, so any answer I give would probably be a bit risky. In the context, perhaps it means—no, I will resist the temptation, because it would probably be foolish.

The hon. Gentleman has admitted that the amendment is probing. If the claimant is a member of a polygamous marriage and at least one partner to the marriage were entitled to basic state pension, nil amounts could not be prescribed in respect of the savings credit and the components of the guarantee credit. However, the power to prescribe nil is a standard power that has been inserted for the avoidance of doubt. Parliamentary counsel does not like doubt. The amendment would not make a major difference.

I shall take the opportunity to explain why polygamy must be dealt with under the rules. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from debate in the House of Lords and other debates, the social security system recognises the validity of polygamous marriages undertaken in countries that permit polygamy. It is, therefore, appropriate for pension credit and other elements of the social security system to make provision to reflect that. As we do not recognise polygamous marriages that take place in countries in which it is against the law, we are dealing with a small number of people who have married abroad in a country in which it is fine to do so and have ended up living here with more than one spouse.

The key aspect of our approach is that we are not treating polygamous marriages any more generously for pension credit than a conventional marriage. I am

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sure that that will enable Committee members to breathe a sigh of relief. In addition, we shall treat polygamous marriages for the guarantee credit as we do for the minimum income guarantee. In the case of the guarantee credit, we shall pay the standard couple rate to the claimant and his first spouse and for each subsequent spouse the difference between the couple rate and the single person rate. For the savings credit, although the guaranteed minimum income will be higher than for a couple, the maximum savings reward will be set at the same amount as for a couple. Therefore we are not extending the maximum savings reward to take account of that small number of people. We believe that that is the most equitable approach to deal with the small number of people who may be involved in such circumstances. The hon. Gentleman referred to a figure of 200. We believe that it is a small number.

On the technical point about prescribing nil amounts, as that is a standard power, the amendment would not make a major difference. I shall give an example, if the hon. Gentleman would find that helpful.

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Lady gives a clear explanation, but does it follow from what she says that the second spouse would receive £53?

Maria Eagle: That is almost right. The difference between the couple's rate of £154 and the single person's rate of £100 is £54. I wonder whether there is any point in my going through the example. I shall do so if it might be helpful.

 
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