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Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, is it in order for a person who has asked a question from the Front Bench to move to the Back Bench in order to ask a question from the Back Bench as part of the time allocated to the Back Benchers? If it is, I seriously think that this is a matter which should be considered by the Procedure Committee.
Lord Tope: My Lords, if that is in order, I claim the right to move to the Back Bench and complete the statement I was to make but which the noble Baroness deprived me of the time for so doing. That is completely out of order and I trust that the authorities will consider it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on inherited SERPS which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. The Statement is as follows:
"Fourteen years ago, the last government made a series of pensions policy changes, which they took through Parliament. One of those changes meant that, from this April, a husband or wife could inherit a maximum of one-half of their spouse's SERPS entitlement.
"The department published the correct information for about a year after the policy change. Pensions professionals also knew about the change. But it is clear that from early 1987 to 1996 DSS information leaflets were issued that did not refer to it.
"It is also clear that wrong information was given to a number of people by some Benefits Agency staff during this period, and for some time after that. There is no doubt that as a result a number of people were misled, and so could have lost out.
"The giving of wrong information by a government department is inexcusable. There is a clear responsibility to ensure that the information provided is accurate and complete. In this case, it was not; and, what is more, even the serious implications of giving the wrong information were not appreciated by the department. This should never have happened. The last government should have sorted this out years ago.
"Three reports are being published today. First, the ombudsman has investigated four sample complaints. Secondly, the Comptroller and Auditor General is publishing his report on what happened and the action needed to prevent a repetition. Thirdly, the NAO, at my request, also carried out a joint review with internal audit, of the DSS management during the relevant period.
"First, there are certain groups who cannot be affected in any way. These include people who would have retired before SERPS was introduced, single and divorced people, and those who have already been widowed.
"Secondly, the policy change due to come into force this April will not come in until 6th October 2002, in two and a half years' time. Because of that, anyone who is widowed before October 2002 will not be affected. Their spouses will still be entitled to inherited SERPS under the current rules.
"Take, for example, a 65 year-old today who was previously given the wrong information. If he dies at, say, 80, his widow has still lost out, but that is not what he was told would happen. We think that she must have access to redress. Deferral has not provided a solution for this couple.
"However, a protected rights scheme does provide redress. No one, including people already retired, who was misinformed, and who might have acted differently had they had the correct information, need lose out. Therefore, I am setting up an Inherited SERPS Scheme.
"The scheme will allow individuals to apply to have their current rights to inheritance of SERPS preserved. To be eligible to apply, applicants must be married, must have paid national insurance contributions since 1978, and must have been misinformed after 1986.
"The NAO report identifies a number of criteria considered essential to the success of the scheme. I agree with those recommendations. The scheme will be well publicised. We will consult widely. And crucially, we will not proceed with processing applications from the public until we are satisfied that they can be dealt with effectively.
"Postponing implementation of the policy for everyone will also allow time for claims to the scheme to be made and processed. Because I do not consider that the Benefits Agency has the capacity to deal with this work, we will set up a separate unit specially for the purpose.
"We will consult the appropriate interested bodies on the delivery of the scheme, including the ombudsman and the National Audit Office. We are also writing to a number of interested organisations today.
"In working out the details for this scheme, there is an obligation on the Government to ensure that we have a system to get money to those who have lost out, just as there is an obligation on individuals to tell the truth.
"I shall put before the House the full details of the Inherited SERPS Scheme, including what information we will require from those wishing to claim and the procedures that will be followed to scrutinise those claims. The NAO and the ombudsman will be fully involved in developing these procedures.
"I have set out my proposals to put matters right for those people affected. But I also want to prevent this problem happening again. The crux of this problem was that there was no clear line of accountability for ensuring that the policy changes were properly implemented, or that information provided to the public was accurate and complete. It is symptomatic of a wider problem I had already identified in the department. It was not focused on the people it was meant to serve--in this case, on pensioners--both today's and tomorrow's.
"I have already begun the process of change, focusing the department on its key client groups: children, working age and pensioners. We need to give a better, dedicated service to pensioners. I am already setting up a modern service, with modern communications, so that pensioners can get information and advice on both pensions and benefits available to them.
"Today I can announce the next step. I am bringing together policy and operational responsibility for pensions under a single organisation, distinct from the Benefits Agency. This new organisation will be solely focused on the needs of pensioners and pensions policy. It will deal with everything from policy development to frontline service delivery, from changes in the law to changes in the leaflets.
"We also have a responsibility to provide clear information to the public. We have already tightened up the procedures for checking leaflets and guidance, but we need to do more. The public rely on government information. They are entitled to be reassured that leaflets are accurate and comprehensive. But I believe that all our leaflets should be subject to external independent audit. This should include consultation with others to ensure that all DSS leaflets are written in plain English. I have therefore asked the Social Security Advisory Committee, which is an independent statutory body, to do this.
"We are deferring this change for two and a half years. We are making sure that people do not lose out because they got the wrong information. We are making root and branch reforms of the DSS. In future, DSS leaflets will be subject to external audit, so that people can rely on clear and accurate information.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in another place, not least because, when dealing with this issue last year in the course of the passage of the related Bill, this House played an important role in the effort to find a solution. Indeed, the Government's variation on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, in this House forms the statutory basis for what the Government are now proposing. For that reason, we are grateful to the noble Baroness.
However, I rather regret the final part of the peroration of the Statement--if, indeed, a Statement can have a peroration--which was perhaps more suited to another place than to this House. Throughout these proceedings--
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