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I am concerned that the amendment would subvert the reforms. It would encourage premature and hasty decisions and increase the risk of employer coercion. It would allow a jobholder effectively to halt any attempts to enrol them into pension saving, and they would thereby lose the benefit of an employer contribution. We recognise that individuals will need access to relevant and accurate information when they are auto-enrolled, as in any other circumstances when they are making decisions about their retirement, and Clause 9 reflects that. However, we must avoid subverting the central objective of the reforms. I hope that the noble Lord understands why I am unable to accept the amendment. I urge him to withdraw it.
Lord Skelmersdale: There are some moments when I get the idea that I am being dropped on from a great height. This is one of those moments. I am surprised that the Minister thought so little of this idea, because
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(2) If a jobholder gives notice in accordance with this section, he is to be treated as ceasing membership of the scheme from the date specified in the notice which must be at least one month after the date the notice is given.
The noble Baroness said: This amendment would insert a new clause after Clause 7. Clause 7 allows opting out of auto-enrolment during a period after joining that is yet to be specified, as we have just been debating. My new clause would allow an employee to opt out at any time, but only from a future date; that is, it would not involve going back and refunding contributions, as an early opt-out under Clause 7 provides. Obviously peoples circumstances change; they may not be able to afford to continue their contributions or they may analyse that they will not receive enough back from future contributions, due to means-tested benefits or otherwise.
The Explanatory Notes for Clause 7 say that active members of a scheme are free to cancel membership at any time, but there is nothing in the Bill to allow that. It may well be an intrinsic legal right within an occupational pension scheme, but in the context of the Bill it would be better to provide specifically for later opting-out. That would include the ability of the Secretary of State to prescribe the content of a notice and would deal with all the other matters that Clause 7 deals with in respect of early opt-outs. For example, it must surely be important that an individual is informed of the effect of his or her decision, in the same way as an early opt-out under Clause 7 will be. Presumably, it will be important to inform the individual of their rights to opt back in and the effect of automatic re-enrolment.
The burden of my amendment is therefore to say to the Government that they should explicitly deal with opting out after the initial opt-out period, and that, even if that is not necessary as a matter of law, it would be better to control the circumstances and information flows in those cases. I should say that I drafted it on the basis of Clause 7 as it appears in the Bill and not as amended a few moments ago, so the
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Lord McKenzie of Luton: I thank the noble Baroness for her amendment. I suspect she has probably anticipated my response. Clause 7 completely undoes scheme membership and guarantees a refund to those jobholders who opt out. Active members of a workplace pension scheme may stop contributing at any time. I assure the Committee that Section 160 of the Pension Schemes Act 1993 will remain in force and that, when these reforms are in place, individuals will still be able to cancel active membership after the opt-out period ends. The noble Baronesss proposition to put a separate process in the Bill is therefore unnecessary. It also adds to administration, which her noble friend is keen to avoid. There will be the ongoing right, embedded in existing pension scheme legislation, for people to withdraw from a pension scheme in accordance with that legislation and the rules of the scheme.
Baroness Noakes: I am disappointed in the Minister. The Government seem quite prepared to heap unnecessary burdens on employers, whom they view largely as coercive and abusive, words that have recurred today. Here I am trying to impose a small burden on employersnot my normal wontin order that employees are reminded of their rights and obligations in relation to pensions. I urge the Minister to think again on this. While I accept that an employee can opt out under existing pension legislation in the context of the Bill, which is trying to draw people back in all the time to ensure that they understand what their rights and obligations are, it is right to specify the terms on which they can opt out, to remind them of the consequences of opting out and to remind them of the automatic re-enrolment process that will come and hit them within three years in any event. It is not enough just to say that they can opt out at any time and good luck to them; that is not the tenor of the approach to employees throughout the rest of the Bill, which is to try to keep them drawn into the scheme and to make it difficult for them to stop saving. For today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, my task in this short but important debate is to celebrate the achievements of the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe. I have always called it BACEE, although some have called it other things.
I declare an interest as chairman of BACEE for the past 10 years. Others have an equally strong interest. The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, who is on the opposition Front Bench, has been on the governing body for a number of yearsI cannot quite remember how long, but she will no doubt tell us. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, was chairman of our organisation in the 1980sit had a slightly different name at the time, but I shall come on to that. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, to our debate, and we all want to hear what the Minister says when he winds up.
I shall start with the bad news, although I shall not continue in this vein because we are here to praise BACEE and not toI was going to say bury itcomplain about our fate, because we have complained about it quite a lot already. Sadly, BACEE, which has been widely acknowledged by successive Foreign Secretaries as a notably successful FCO non-departmental public bodythat is an appalling mouthful, but I think that we all know what we mean by ithas had to close. This is the direct result of the FCOs decision in August 2005 under a previous Foreign SecretaryI do not blame the present incumbentsto withdraw the grant in aid. I and my colleagues on the governing body have made it clear that we regard this decision as short-sighted and prejudicial to British interests in the area. It was not a wise decision, but an economy made by the Foreign Office under pressure from the Treasury, and it will come to regret it in the future.
BACEE has had a proud history. Under its then title of the British East-West Centre, when the noble Lord, Lord Roper, was its chair, it kept channels open to the countries of the eastern bloc, as it was then, by organising conferences and seminars, to which some of us went. It was very important that we reached out to a number of independent people in those countries. We were an independent organisation, which was very important because it meant that we acted as a valuable counterweight to the propaganda of communist-front organisations.
Then, after the collapse of Soviet rule in eastern and central Europe in 1989 and 1990, we did valuable work in promoting the values of civil society and helped prepare those newly independent countries for membership of the European Union through seminars, round tables and conferences targeted specifically at the political, judicial, civil service and media leaderships. Since 1991, there have been more than 5,500 participants in BACEE programmes, including more than 60 current and former Ministers from the area as well as four Heads of Government and 10 Foreign Ministers. That is a pretty impressive list.
Then, just to show that we were moving on again, as the EU moved towards enlargement, we did not rest on our laurels but, with the active encouragement of the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, turned our focus to neighbouring countries outside the EU. We continued our work in the west Balkans, which is a vital area for Europe, and expanded our activities to include Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Turkey.
Our programmes have been centred traditionally on well prepared conferences, seminars and study visits, but the key note of our work throughout the period has been the building-up of an extraordinary network of contacts, which with the help of our embassies in the region we developed and proved extraordinarily useful to our foreign policy. I mention as an example the New Serbia Forum, which BACEE organised in the late 1990s to prepare for a democratic, post-Milosevic Yugoslavia. It was supported not only by the British but also by the Hungarian and Swiss Governments, and proved to be one of BACEEs greatest successes. It is perhaps significant that many of the participants in the New Serbia Forum continue to play a role today in ensuring the survival of the democratic system in Serbia, which is vital to the whole European Union.
Central and eastern Europe remains an area of key importance to the United Kingdom. Almost half the member states of the European Union, including a key heavyweight in Poland, come from the region. EU decisions on key issues, including trade, the environment, organised crime and terrorism, and energy, will require their support, to say nothing of relations with Russia. It is vital that the Foreign Office continues to focus its attention on this area and does not think that, just because those countries are in the EU, we need not worry about them any more. BACEEs governing body will want to be certain that the FO continues its work and continues to be interested in the area. I hope that the Minister will satisfy us in that regard.
BACEE has made its own contribution to keeping our values alive and retaining interest in the area by setting up in conjunction with the School of Slavonic and East European Studies a series of public lectures or conferences, which one hopes will be held for a long time to come. Our first public lecture will be held in the autumn. The Foreign Office has assured us that it will be in the Locarno or another fine room thereit is apparently a technical term. I hope that the present Foreign Secretary will be our first lecturerhe certainly ought to beand I think that he would do a very good job.
I conclude, because we are allowed only 10 minutes and there are other speakers. On behalf of the governing body, which has included parliamentarians of all partiesI mention from the present governing body not only the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, but David Curry MP and Gisela Stuart MPI would like to thank parliamentarians of all parties and representatives of the media, the judiciary, business and universities who have helped us in our work. We could not have carried it out without the support of all those people who have given their activities entirely free. I thank successive chairmen of BACEEI think that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, will say a few words about them. I
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Lord Roper: My Lords, I must begin by declaring an interest. I was for 12 years a member of the governing body of what was then the Great Britain-East Europe Centre and chairman from 1987 to 1990. Like the noble Lord, Lord Radice, I should like on this occasion to congratulate those who have done so much over the 40 years life of the two bodiesthe body which transformed its name in 1991 to the British Association for Central and Eastern Europeon what has been an extraordinary service and an extremely important part of our countrys external relations at very little cost.
As the noble Lord, Lord Radice, said, we celebrate and we regret. I congratulate him on his period of 10 years as chairman of the governing body, a period which has not been an easy one but one in which, as he saidand I shall return to itthe organisation has moved particularly towards the west Balkans and into other areas, including Ukraine, and involving even people from Belarus, discussing questions and reporting human rights. These informal approaches are extremely important in those countries.
The 40 years of BACEEs existence can be divided into three periods. The first 20 years was the period of the Cold War. During that period only four countries were involvedHungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Then there was the period of transition at the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, with the addition of Poland in 1986, the Baltic states and Albania and more recently the concentration on the successor states of former Yugoslavia, together with Turkey, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine.
I first heard of the plans for the creation of the Great Britain-East Europe Centre when I was visiting Romania in 1966. It was in the flat of John Birch, who was first secretary in the British Embassy. Doreen Berry, who had been a senior official in the external services of the BBC and who was to be deputy director of the centre, was also visiting Bucharest and over dinner I heard what was planned to create this centre. When the centre went public in the following year, it was my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank who was the Minister responsible for the launch of the Great Britain-East Europe Centre.
The governing body was then under the very distinguished chairmanship of Sir Gilbert Longden, a Conservative, with John Mackintosh, then a Labour Member of Parliament, as the vice-chairman. The centre and BACEE have had chairmen from both Houses throughout their existence. Sir Gilbert Longden was followed by the late Lord Walston and then myself. I was followed by Nigel Forman, at that time a Conservative MP, and then the late Lord Kelvedon, who was succeeded by the noble Lord, Lord Radice.
It has also benefited from a remarkable series of retired diplomats who have been directors. The first two were Sir William Harpham and Sir Donald Logan,
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The early period of the Cold War was not always easy. Some countries were more prepared for serious exchanges than others. The first round table I attended as a very new Member of Parliament in 1970 was an Anglo-Hungarian round table held in Brasenose College, Oxford. It was a success and the Hungarians seemed interested to be exposed to the range of free ideas coming from the British participants. Indeed, my impression looking back over that period was that the Hungarians were always more open than most of their partners in the exchanges. Finding effective partners was not always easy at that time. Inevitably they were official and, although there was a range of people, there were some who were closer to the centre of power in their countries than others. We thought it was useful that we were able to expose them to the sorts of ideas and societies which we represented.
After the Hungarians, we had very good relations with the Bulgarians, perhaps because the first two directors had previously served as ambassadors in Bulgaria and therefore had very good contacts in that country. With Hungary and Bulgaria the round tables were able to cover a wide range of issues, including political ones. With Czechoslovakia and Romania the situation was rather more difficult, particularly in Czechoslovakia after the events of 1968, the time of the inception of the centre. Indeed we had to limit ourselves to having rather technical exchanges. I remember the ultimate one being discussions about hill farming in Bohemia related to hill farming in Wales. Similarly, with the gradual hardening of the situation in Romania under Ceausescu, the ground was not particularly fertile.
As the noble Lord, Lord Radice, said, however, the most interesting period in many ways was the extraordinary work which, after 1991, BACEE was able to do at the end of the Cold War with the departure of the Soviet forces. About 5,500 politicians, civil servants, judges, journalists and businessmen, who would form civil society as potential governors and potential governments, came not to be lectured but to see how democracy worked under the rule of law in a market society. The discussions and exchanges have proved very useful. They have left us with a very useful network of friends, not only of BACEE but of this country, in the countries concerned.
The third phase was towards the beginning of this century when attention moved from the countries that were well on their way to joining NATO and the European Union to the countries of former Yugoslavia
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I believe that the successor states of Yugoslaviastates such as Bosnia, Macedonia and, though not a successor state, Albaniastill need the sort of assistance which has been provided by BACEE over the years. This informal, second-track form of co-operation is able to do things in a particularly helpful way. In the same way Moldova and the Ukraine, which are developing democracies, need continued assistance.
BACEEs methods will continue to be invaluable and that is why, like the noble Lord, Lord Radice, I hope that the Minister can say that, although the organisation is no longer in existence, the work which it has been doing can be continued by new methods.
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