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Lord Rix: I said in my introductory speech that the Government have chosen to drink from this poisoned chalice. They had the option two years ago to reverse the 1986 legislation or at least make sure that information was being disseminated from the Benefits Agency. Therefore, whatever they have said about the length of time which has elapsed since 1986 when it was the fault of the Conservative government, and now appears to be that of a Labour Government who have taken up the same baton and are running with it, I do

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not believe that that is an argument against the fact that the government of the day have a duty to put right what was obviously wrong in 1986. I would have thought that any government with moral fibre, background and constitution would do that as a matter of course.

I have two questions for the Minister to add to those put by the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. There appears to be some delay. As the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, said, we may have to wait for sometime, never, for the ombudsman to respond. Can the Minister say whether some words of comfort can drip from this Government's publicity machine before 5th April 2000? After that date potential and putative widows are extremely worried as to what will happen from that date onwards.

Could not a letter be forthcoming from the Benefits Agency apologising for the enormous damage which it has caused, and pointing out the detrimental effects that its incorrect information has had on many people, both husbands and wives? Could not such a letter also carry some crumbs of comfort that the Minister of State in another place has said that compensation will be paid to those who are due to be compensated? That would at least be something to hold the fort, as it were, before 5th April next year; otherwise, if the ombudsman has not reported and the matter is referred to the European Court of Human Rights--which could take another five years--what will happen then? Indeed, many widows will be walking around with furrowed brows. Can the Minister possibly answer those questions?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am very sorry, but I cannot take Members of the Committee very much further than what was said on the last amendment, which was debated on the previous Committee day. I know that noble Lords are pressing the matter with three separate amendments, which happened to fall due for debate on two different days, but I am afraid that I am being asked to give information that is not available and to answer questions that I cannot answer because I do not have the relevant information. Indeed, in the course of the process, we have not yet made our final determinations.

In response to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, I should remind the Committee that no one has yet suffered any financial loss as a result of these changes because they do not take effect until April 2000. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that the Government must have their position and their response clear by that time. We said this not only on the last Committee day but also during Question Time in this Chamber; indeed, we have made that clear.

The Government have also made it clear on several occasions that they would consider claims for compensation from individuals who have received incorrect information, which has either subsequently acted to their detriment or failed to act to their benefit. I am sure that all noble Lords accept just how complicated the evidence in that respect will turn out to be. The other option available to the Government is some possible staged deferral. However, we have not yet determined what our response should be. We do not know where the problems originated because we do not have access to the previous government's

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paperwork. Clearly a Statement will be made before April 2000, and I am very happy to give the noble Lord that reassurance. I hope that it will be helpful.

I wish that I could take Members of the Committee further, but we could continue such discussions for a few more hours and all I would be able to stand up and say is, "I cannot take noble Lords any further". When I have information that I can bring to the House, I shall be delighted to do so. As my noble friend rightly said, many widows or widowers have obviously made provision on a misunderstanding of what the situation would be. In so far as that has caused them stress or potential financial detriment, it is not a situation that we would wish them to be in. The Government will do their best under the circumstances, while balancing the pressures that we face. As soon as I can give noble Lords any further information, as I said, I shall be very happy to do so. With that undertaking, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Rix: Obviously I had hoped that the Minister would assure us that at least the Benefits Agency would send out a letter to people who are likely to suffer under this SERPS arrangements at present. Clearly, SERPS is being widely reported in the media and, judging by the letters which I have received--certainly by the thousands of letters which Age Concern has received--many people are extremely worried at this moment. They would like some assurance that due attention is being paid to the situation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I shall obviously take note of the noble Lord's suggestion and consider it. I do not know whether the noble Lord is inviting us to write to everyone in this respect, including those who know about it or are unaffected by it; or, indeed, those who have never been given any misleading evidence. However, I shall read Hansard carefully and consider what the noble Lord has said.

Lord Rix: I thank the Minister. Leaflets have been incorrectly printed over the years and have been sent out in their tens of thousands--indeed, probably millions--from the Benefits Agency. I am merely asking for a round robin letter to all those who are likely to be in receipt of SERPS, stating the present position and, possibly, the future position. That might clear many people's minds before 5th April--

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I should point out to the noble Lord that there is no way that the Government could send out a letter stating a future position which has not yet been decided. However, I take the noble Lord's point that there is concern in this respect. Obviously, the Government will seek to ascertain whether there is any way in which we can allay the concern between now and the point at which we can bring our proposals to this and the other place.

Lord Rix: I am very happy with that assurance. I had contemplated seeking a Division on this amendment. However, in view of the possibilities of complicating any judicial findings or later findings of the ombudsman, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 91B not moved.]

[Amendment No. 92 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 92A not moved.]

Clause 51 agreed to.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 92B:

After Clause 51, insert the following new clause--


("(1) After subsection (1) of section 113 of the Contributions and Benefits Act there shall be inserted--
"(1A) Subsection (1) shall not disqualify a person absent from Great Britain from receiving a retirement pension under Part II of this Act."
(2) At the end of section 119 of the Contributions and Benefits Act there shall be added--
"(2) No order made under this section may provide for any uprating under section 150 of the Administration Act of retirement pensions under Part II of this Act to be excluded or reduced by reason of the absence from Great Britain of the person entitled to the pension."").

The noble Earl said: In the absence of my noble friend Lord Goodhart, who is attending the freedom of information committee, I rise to move this amendment. The proposed new clause deals with the situation of pensioners who have moved abroad, most commonly to Australia, Canada and other countries, and whose pensions are no longer uprated once they have left this country. Therefore, they become nugatory very quickly. Clearly in such cases this leads to fairly considerable hardship and, obviously, there is very strong feeling on the matter. I believe that the matter has been debated in this Chamber on and off many times during the past 11 years--indeed, that is all the time that I have been here--and, I imagine, for a good deal longer.

Of course, governments always respond with the question of cost. It is quite right that they should do so because it is significant. However, the key principle here is reciprocity. Obviously no country wants to be responsible both for its own pensioners living abroad and also for other countries' pensioners who are living within its territories. Moreover, it is a good thing that everyone drawing a pension should have someone who is responsible for uprating it. If that is not the case, the pension very rapidly becomes so small that it is really not of very much use. That, in turn, tends to become a charge on means-tested benefits in the host country. Therefore, if people do not accept the principle of reciprocity, we will have a situation of "beggar my neighbour" out of which everyone loses.

It is my understanding that the Government of Australia do accept responsibility for uprating the pensions of Australian pensioners who live in this country. I believe that the Government ought to follow the principle of reciprocity. If it takes time, they should undertake a certain amount of negotiation; but they should not simply leave the matter as it is. The Minister may remember that, under present law, a good many of

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these people have votes in this country and they may well cast them. I hope that that will concentrate the Minister's mind wonderfully. I beg to move.

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