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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, the Green Paper will be published later this year and it will be followed by a period for consultation.
Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Do not these repeated postponements mean that we shall reach no firm decisions on pensions policy in time for next year's uprating of the basic pension due to be announced in November? Is the Minister aware that Mr. Tom Ross, who has chaired a committee set up by the Prime Minister to inquire into the position of pensioners, has found that they are not sharing in economic growth? Will the Government therefore please at least take one decision immediately, and that is to restore the earnings link in time for the next uprating?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, as I think my noble friend will know, the Ross Report shows that on average pensioners' incomes overall are predicted to rise over the next 20 years in line with earnings, not prices. But clearly those pensioners who are dependent on state, let alone means-tested benefits, will not share in the same growing prosperity as those who have occupational pensions. That is why as part of our consultation we have been working on proposals for a stakeholder pension because the state pension alone will not, and cannot, guarantee people comfort in old age. We need to have proper, second-tier provision. The stakeholder pension, together with the citizenship pension for the future, and our concern to ensure take-up of income support for pensioners now, will address the real problems that my noble friend has identified.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, as the deadline for publication of this important document has been postponed from the first half of this year to 30th June and now, apparently, until later in the year, I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, has said. Can the
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I wish I could give the noble Lord the information that he requests. I do not know when the report is expected to be published. It will be later this year, but I cannot give the timetable. I take the noble Lord's point; however, there is certainly no intention that I am aware of to bring a document out during the Summer Recess, but again that timetable is not in my hands.
Over the past year since coming to power the Government have had in place from July onwards a pensions review consultative exercise, which has given rise to 2,000 replies. We followed that with a stakeholder consultation paper, which gave rise to 200 replies. That was followed by the Ross report group. Its report has just been published. A pensions education group is about to publish a report. I am sure that the noble Lord will accept that this Government are seeking the widest possible consent and consultation, so that any proposals we bring before the public will be robust and have all-party agreement.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, why, if this Question has been on the Order Paper for some time, is the noble Baroness quite unable to give a more satisfactory and intelligible, quick, accurate answer?
Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Is it not the truth that the Government and the Cabinet are deeply split on this matter, and that Mr. Frank Field's wilder ideas have proved financially impossible? Is it not a fact that, for nearly two years, some of us have been supplying the material for which the Government say they are now waiting and that they have set up more pilot schemes to inquire into what everybody knows is the position--that pensioners cannot wait any longer?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, my noble friend will not need me to remind her that there are two problems. There is the problem of the poorest pensioners now. They are mainly single women over 75 who have not built up a pension in the past and are not claiming the income support to which they are entitled. Many are losing £17 a week. That means that they are not heating their homes and not eating the food that they would choose to eat. We have proposals in place for pilot schemes which we hope to roll-out nationwide so that pensioners claim the benefits to which they are entitled. That is the short-term problem.
There is a longer term problem. Given our changing labour market, more self-employment--which has doubled since 1979--more part-time jobs, more women entering the labour market with intermittent earnings, and pensioners living longer, we need to ensure that decent second-tier pensions are in place for all people.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we are continually bombarded with evidence that we are sitting on a pensions time bomb? Is it perhaps time to consider returning to our former position; namely, that membership of occupational pensions is a condition of employment? Where that does not exist in employment, should there be some compulsion for every worker to take out a pension scheme?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, there is already a considerable amount of compulsion in the pension scheme, as my noble friend will appreciate. Anybody presently earning above the lower earnings limit, some £64 a week, who is not in an occupational pension scheme and is an employee will currently pay into SERPS. But of course SERPS does not cover the self-employed, or part-time and low-paid workers. People cannot pay into SERPS when they are not in work, and many women have broken patterns of employment. So although my noble friend's suggestion will not be unfamiliar to my colleagues in other departments, it still does not address the problem. Many people need a decent second-tier pension in old age, and there is no product in the market-place which offers them that.
Earl Russell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that this subject is made up of many complicated interlocking parts, of which yesterday's welcome publication on pension splitting in divorce is one? Does she further agree that it matters desperately to get it right as well as to get it done quickly?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that contribution. I am sure that the House, like me, will be delighted that, yesterday, we were able to publish the draft Bill on pension-splitting, which was an all-party move by this House. I am delighted that the noble Earl was generous enough to draw that to the attention of the House today.
The noble Earl is right. Since 1988, in the reforms to SERPS, we have put forward various proposals for changes in second-tier pensions over and beyond those in the Pensions Act 1995. The Opposition, when in government, produced Basic Pension Plus, a scheme that has now been dropped. That scheme found no broad consent. If we are to produce a framework for pension provision that offers security as well as comfort in old age, it is clear that it must have staying power. That can happen only if it is based on widespread consultation, not only with the industry and the pensioners' movements, of which my noble friend is such an important advocate, but in all sections of this House. That is why we have now held four consultation exercises and may still need to consider consultation.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the short-term action proposed by my noble friend of linking the state pension to earnings rather than prices would raise pensioner incomes this year by 40p. Yet something like 1 million pensioners are going without £17 a week in income support. Comparing 40p with £17 a week, I know what I think is the best way of helping the poorest pensioners.
The Procedure Committee's Third Report deals with a number of important questions. Although, strictly, we should deal with the two amendments in turn first, I hope that noble Lords will not feel constrained by their presence and will feel free to range over the report as a whole so that we can have just one debate.
On the matter of using the Queen's name to influence debate, the Procedure Committee considered a lengthy and learned memorandum by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, another by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Blake. The committee decided that the doctrine as stated in Erskine May is correct and should normally apply, but that it was undesirable to impose any absolute rule because circumstances had to be taken into account.
It has to be acknowledged that exceptional circumstances may arise in future. It is not inevitable; indeed it may well be unlikely; but they may do so. In the event of a situation recurring such as the Succession to the Crown Bill, the Procedure Committee thought that it would be desirable if discussions could be held through the usual channels to resolve the extent to which the doctrine in Erskine May should apply in those particular circumstances.
The committee believes that our procedure must retain some measure of flexibility to take account of exceptional circumstances, and for that reason did not recommend that the rule in Erskine May should be regarded as absolute. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford,
The Procedure Committee was particularly concerned about the conduct of Starred Questions. I was asked to draw to your Lordships' attention the rules which should govern this procedure. Supplementary questions should ask for information, and not take the form of statements. They should be short. They should not be read. Noble Lords are also reminded that time is often wasted by two or more Peers refusing to give way to another Peer. If questions are short, and Peers give way more quickly, more opportunities will be available to put questions to Ministers, who are in turn invited by the noble Lord the Leader of the House to give shorter, sharper replies.
On carry-over of Bills, the significance of paragraph 2(f) in the report is that the new procedure which is recommended for the carry-over of Bills has no immediate practical consequences for your Lordships' House. Initially the only Bills which will be candidates for the new procedure will be Bills introduced into another place. At this stage in the development of the procedure for carry-over, no Bill which starts off in your Lordships' House and which is still here at the end of a Session will be carried over. It is clear from paragraph (e) that any Commons Bill which is carried over in that House will, when it reaches your Lordships' House, be treated in exactly the same way as any other Bill introduced into another place and brought to this House.
On the matter of hands in pockets and the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, I would only say that the committee has been concerned that the traditional way in which the House behaves has in recent times been somewhat eroded. One reason may be that some noble Lords simply do not know, or have perhaps forgotten, some of the little courtesies which characterise the way in which we conduct our business and our debates.
On 27th February, during the second reading debate on the Succession to the Crown Bill, Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Home Office Minister, informed the House that The Queen had no objections to the bill. Several Lords argued that this disclosure was contrary to the rule in Erskine May that the irregular use of The Queen's name to influence a decision of the House was unconstitutional and inconsistent with the independence of Parliament (p 382). On 2nd March the Leader of the House, after having consulted the clerks, advised the House that on a bill which was so fundamentally personal to The Queen it was only sensible for Her Majesty's views to be made known to the House. He also said that procedural rules should always be applied with commonsense and with due regard to all circumstances.
The noble Lord said: In moving my amendment to the report, I seek to give the House the opportunity to maintain fully an important constitutional convention which protects the independence of parliamentary proceedings from interference or undue influence from the Crown; and, no less important, protects the Queen from party politics. It was, I had thought, a convention well known to Members of both Houses. It has been enshrined in successive editions of Erskine May, our parliamentary bible, ever since the publication first appeared in 1844. Previously all governments have felt tightly bound by it.
Your Lordships can therefore imagine my astonishment when, on 27th February, during the Second Reading debate on the Succession to the Crown Bill, introduced by my noble friend Lord Archer, I heard the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on behalf of the Government, say:
I should say at once that I attach no personal blame to the noble Lord, who, as he explained to me subsequently, was merely saying what he was told to say. Nor do I blame the Palace, who, we have been told, agreed the form of words to be used. Nor do I blame my noble friend Lord Archer, who tells me that he had no idea that the Government were going to reveal the Queen's view on the Bill. Nor do I blame the Clerks, who, the Lord Privy Seal has told us, produced the advice that he used on 2nd March as an ex post justification for what had happened the previous Friday afternoon. The Clerks had not been consulted before the event, more is the pity. They might have urged caution before endorsing so flagrant a breach of the convention.
I suspect and fear that the origins of what happened on 27th February lie in the spin doctors' Downing Street surgery, where the temptation to manipulate the monarchy to support the "Cool Britannia" image proved in this instance as irresistible as it was unwise.
We do not know, of course, what Madam Speaker would have said, but the Procedure Committee, to which I referred the matter for adjudication, was told by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, that, as Speaker, he would have "jumped on" such an incident.
The Lord Privy Seal, in his own statement to the Procedure Committee, reaffirmed his justification for the incident. That did not totally surprise me; he is not someone who easily changes his mind. I hope he will not regard it as disrespectful--and I certainly do not intend to be acerbic--if I suggest that just occasionally I wonder whether there is not a touch of hubris in his attitude to the British constitution.
I am, of course, glad that the committee has endorsed the Erskine May rule. I do not object to the committee's conclusion that exceptional circumstances may arise which may make it desirable to depart from its strict interpretation. But in our parliamentary system, and indeed our legal system, rules are modified by precedent. I therefore strongly object to the reference to the Succession to the Crown Bill as an example of where the departure is justified. If the House were to accept these words, it would at once form a precedent--in my view, one which is both unnecessary and undesirable. I do not believe that the summing up of the Chairman of Committees, as reported in the minutes of the committee, justify the inclusion of the words to which I object.
Before I go any further in putting my case, I have been asked by my noble friend Lord Blake, who also gave evidence to the Procedure Committee and whose opinion in these matters is, I believe, deeply respected, to say that he much regrets that, due to a very temporary medical indisposition, he is unable to be here today to support my amendment.
In his statement of 2nd March the Lord Privy Seal recognised the importance of the issue but justified the use of the Queen's opinion on this occasion on three grounds: that on a matter which was so fundamentally personal to the Sovereign and her family, it would have been unhelpful to the House for the Government not to have made her view known; that the procedure must always be applied with common sense and due consideration for the circumstances; and that Her Majesty's views would soon have become apparent through other channels.
Before I specifically refute these reasons, I would ask your Lordships' indulgence to allow me to refer to the historical background to this issue. It is not surprising that the constitutional convention should have originated in the time of Charles I. It was then that the fundamental right of Parliament to be free from Crown interference was fought for and established. It would therefore seem specious to argue that there are earlier historical precedents which now justify what was done in February 1998. The wording of the doctrine as laid down in the current 22nd edition of Erskine May is identical to that of the first edition of 1844. However, the first edition makes it clear that the origin of the issue
Erskine May makes it clear that the doctrine should not exclude a statement by a Minister of the facts in which the Queen's name may be concerned. Even this has led to problems. Sir Robert Walpole, in 1729, and Sir Robert Peel, in 1843, were challenged for giving purely factual accounts of the Sovereign's position on issues. Peel was merely repeating what William IV had already said in a speech from the throne. Even then, Speaker Shaw-Lefevre thought it necessary to reaffirm the underlying position:
The next major battle started in 1909 and led to the Parliament Act 1911. The parliamentary proprieties were observed and Asquith took the greatest pains to avoid any action which might reveal the King's view. After the Liberal victory of February 1910, Asquith told the Commons:
Thus parliamentary history underlines the seriousness with which both Houses have, for at least 150 years, treated the constitutional convention that the Sovereign's views should not be used in debate in a way which might be thought to influence Parliament and thus undermine its independence. The Speaker checks even the most minor infringements in the House of Commons.
After the justification given we are left with a situation in which it would seem to be open to any Peer to argue in debate on any matter before the House that one of the three criteria of the Lord Privy Seal applies and that the Queen's view on the merits of the matter could or should be revealed. That is clearly unsatisfactory, especially as it is anticipated that there could soon be further constitutional legislation under which hereditary Peers, including Royal Dukes, may lose their membership of the House of Lords.
While common sense and due consideration of the circumstances are good rules to apply to behaviour in and out of Parliament, they hardly justify on their own overturning an important constitutional convention. If the Queen's view on legislation can be given by a government Minister, is it open to the Opposition or Back-Benchers from any party to comment on or even refute that view? Indeed, is the right to put forward the Queen's view to be left solely to the government of the day?
Finally, as we all know, Erskine May applies to both Houses. If we were to endorse this totally new precedent as an exception to the convention, where would that leave another place? Surely in such matters symmetry between both Houses of Parliament is important. I hope that the Lord Privy Seal will indicate that he is prepared to think again and therefore accept my amendment. If the House were to agree to the report unamended, I fear that it would result in a constitutional shambles. I beg to move.
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