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Lord Rix: Before the Minister sits down perhaps I may ask a further question. Can she clarify the statement made in another place by the Minister, Stephen Timms, that compensation will probably be payable to those who make telephone calls to the Benefits Agency? Clearly if that is so, it will take many years to unravel who did and who did not make phone calls; how it will be proved and so forth. A number of people have been in correspondence with the Benefits Agency, but many thousands, of whom I am one, conducted their inquiries through the telephone.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The noble Lord is correct, but it is even more complicated. A person may simply have made an inquiry at the counter and no record was kept; that might be considered to be appropriate evidence. I cannot help the Committee any further on this until the Government determine what path, if any, they propose to take in response to this situation. Then, as soon as I can, I shall share that information with the Committee and it will no doubt be open for debate. But we are not there yet.
We cannot accept what the noble Baroness said about the grouping of the amendments. It is true that the same issue underlies all three, but each one deals with the problem in a completely different way. My amendment merely sought to urge the Government to make a decision and imposed a sanction if they did not. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, would cost an uncertain amount; the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, to which we shall come shortly, would probably cost around £5.5 billion. Therefore, it is strange to say that they are all the same amendment.
Perhaps I may pursue the point made with regard to officials. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that there is a problem in looking back at the papers of the previous government. The absolutely watertight convention is that one government do not look at their predecessor's papers. That is right. We therefore have a problem in finding out what was happening in 1986 or thereabouts. I hope that the ombudsman can illuminate that matter.
It is also the case that, under the present Government, officials continued, right up to April, to misinform people. While Ministers are accountable, there is also a responsibility on them--as the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee made clear and it is now accepted doctrine--to look into the matter and assure Members of the Committee that appropriate action has been taken in relation to the individuals concerned. That does not necessarily mean producing the individuals in the light of day, but at least reassuring us that something has been done; otherwise the kind of inaction which took place under both governments is unlikely to be corrected.
In one sense the noble Baroness helpfully spelt out the Government's attitude to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, in relation to the legal arguments. Whether one view or the other is correct remains to be seen. But she did not deal with the question, when the legal issue originally arose, of the position with regard to the misinformation. Having taken legal advice, do the Government now take the view that they do or do not have a legal liability with regard to the individuals who, as a result of being misinformed, did not take action which they would otherwise have taken and who suffered as a result? One must press the Government. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rix, we have tried to be helpful as regards individuals who do not know where they stand. Time is running out. As the noble Earl has pointed out, the longer the matter is unresolved the less chance there is for people to make adjustments.
Given the very clear undertaking in another place by the Minister of State that the Government will ensure that those who have been misinformed do not suffer, we should at least have some idea what form of compensation they have in mind. So far we have had no indication at all other than the Government saying that they cannot say what the answer will be until they have made a decision. We need to have a decision now and not a policy of procrastination.
Baroness Castle of Blackburn: I listened attentively to what the Minister had to say hoping that the rumour that she was about to announce some substantial concession was true. But obviously it is not because all we have been given is an undated promissory note. The ombudsman is to report, but when? Surely the Minister knows.
Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Yes, of course. But is it going to be this year, next year, some time or never that we shall get a report that will compel the Government to make some compensatory payments to these people? The Government have a very serious share of the liability. I was thinking over how we introduced the widows' pension provision way back in the 1974 government. We did that by analysing the causes of poverty and seeking to deal with them. We found that one of the main causes was a breadwinner on a low income with a large family and hence child benefit. I congratulate the Government in not having had second thoughts about that. We found that the other great pocket of poverty existed among elderly widows. So we devised the most generous provision for widows yet known in our social security system. As we all know, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, reversed that. Mr. Tony Blair's Government was in no hurry to repudiate this total change of Labour policy because he believed in it. That is the truth. That is why the Government were not anxious to publicise the change of what had been Labour's traditional policy. We had a government who said that they were going to be a caring government and do this or that, but they failed for a substantial period of time to rectify the lack of information which the predecessor government had provided. So the Government have a liability at the very least to compensate those who, as many people have pointed out, are astonished to find that widows will be inadequately provided for.
As usual, the Minister said that it would cost billions. If so, does that not mean that they are robbing the widows of billions? Is not that the simple fact? If an error has been made, who should pay for it? Should it be the people who in good faith continued to believe that widows would get the whole of their SERPS pension entitlement? In my view the very size of the bill puts a greater moral responsibility on the Government to compensate and make some adjustment. I am deeply concerned today that we are going away very shortly for
Earl Russell: The noble Baroness, Lady Castle of Blackburn, has hit the nail on the head. I do not know whether the Minister is a reader of David Lodge's book Changing Places. If so, she will remember the character Howard Ringbaum who could not resist winning even to his own great detriment. I hope that when the Minister finds defects in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, she will bear that danger in mind. She has the choice here between an amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Rix, which is cheap but technically difficult and an amendment from me which is workable but clearly expensive. If I were the Minister I would not try to be too persuasive about the difficulties of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rix.
Lord Davies of Coity: I, too, have listened very attentively to this debate. I have a great deal of sympathy with the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the objective he seeks to achieve. I have spoken on this matter on occasions in the past. But listening to the debate today I find some measure of inconsistency in the question of us all being responsible for doing something about the problem. We have to recognise that only the Government have the responsibility of finding £5 billion in order to deal with the difficulty in full.
As regards the apportionment and criticism that have been levelled, we have to understand that this legislation was introduced in 1986 in both Houses of Parliament and passed. As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has demonstrated, that was 14 years ago and twelve of those years passed when the previous government were in power. This Government have been in power for only two years. I suggest that placing blame on this Government for the lack of information or misinformation is a fragile straw to cling to. Quite frankly, even if people were informed as they should have been 14 years ago, many of them would not have made alternative arrangements when they knew SERPS was to be reduced.
We ought to keep a balance. We have the ombudsman and a Labour Government who are extremely sympathetic to the people who will be adversely affected by the present situation. That is sufficient at this stage rather than trying to impose on the Government the enormous burden of a matter which they did not introduce.
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