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Baroness Greengross: My Lords, on previous occasions I have expressed grave reservations about whether a protected rights scheme is the best way to address the awful problem of inherited SERPS. However, today I shall limit my comments to the amendments before the House, which look at who should be covered by the scheme.
I very much welcome the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Rix. It has my full support and I hope that it will receive the support of the Government. I also have a great deal of sympathy with the approach adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in his amendment. His amendment accepts that there is an obligation, albeit a moral one, for people to be positively informed of changes.
Amendment No. 76A, standing in my name, is a modest attempt to explore the current view on the definition of "incomplete information". It attempts to highlight the position of some people who fall into the category of being, not misinformed, but only not informed. They have a particular reason to believe that they should have been told of any changes. This might
I wish to consider in particular those people who asked for a pension forecast in order to plan their retirement. They were given one, but one without any specific guidance as regards their spouses. A number of people who have contacted organisations such as Age Concern have found themselves in this position. They believe that the information they received was incomplete because, although they were given detailed information about their future pensions, no reference was made at the time to changes in the law. I appreciate that consultation is on-going and that there will be further opportunities to consider the regulations. However, I would very much welcome the Minister's assurance that in looking at the definition of "incorrect or incomplete information" careful consideration will be given to the issues I have outlined.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I support the spirit behind all these amendments. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, who has fought the battle in this House extremely valiantly and with good effect. I hope that he will continue to have that effect. He is now supported on the Cross-Benches--he was not when the battle began some considerable time ago--by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. I also support the amendment spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins.
As the noble Lord pointed out, there has been a cock-up on a massive scale in which a great many people have suffered. It is not by any means easy to decide who has and who has not suffered. It is something about which we on these Benches have felt very strongly ever since the matter was first raised in Parliament, which I believe was towards the end of 1998 by my honourable friend Mr David Rendel in another place.
This is a case where justice has to be done to the many people who have suffered. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that when the regulations are published, which cannot be too soon, they will take into account the points raised in these amendments and in the debates which have taken place on this and other occasions.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I agree with noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, who have tabled amendments to Clause 38. There is no doubt that confusion could arise unless something is done. I say in passing that for reasons connected with the mentally handicapped, among others, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and I have tried our best to help. But on this occasion I prefer Amendment No. 75 in the name of my noble friend Lord Higgins. I believe that this
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I was unable to be present when this matter was discussed in Committee. I had to catch an aeroplane. I have read the debate and I am filled with admiration for the clarity with which noble Lords on all sides of the House discussed the matter. The issues are perfectly plain as a result of that discussion, and that is very clever considering that it took place between 10.15 and 11 at night. That was wholly admirable. I pay tribute to noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Higgins, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, have reiterated their concerns.
I speak in particular to Amendment No. 75 because it is all-embracing. It is a very important principle. The nub of the matter is that the ombudsman said that the burden of proof should be shifted and the onus should be on the department to prove that a person has not been misled, instead of a person having to prove that he had been. The Government have accepted that in a number of ways and they are on record as having done so.
The Government want to put that decision into action following consultation and by their own route through regulations. Although the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said from the Liberal Democrat Benches that he supported all the amendments, he seemed to believe that regulations would do. My noble friend makes the point that the principle should be enshrined on the face of the Bill. We have not seen the regulations and it does not appear that we shall until the Bill has become law. Unless something of that nature is put on the face of the Bill we cannot be sure that this clear principle will be included.
I hope that the House and the Minister will accept my noble friend's amendment. If she does not, she needs to give us a full assurance that a government amendment would make the point clear at Third Reading. I do not believe that the House should leave the matter to chance. Regulations are not a suitable method for implementing this matter in any case because the detail will count. Unless we are sure that the principle is there the regulations may easily escape. I support my noble friend's amendment, as my noble friend Lord Renton has done.
Lord Elton: My Lords, I rise to speak briefly only because the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, in speaking to her amendment, said in her closing remarks that in some way a palliative might be applied to her wish to have an amendment involving a reduction and that there would be regulations which we could discuss. The frustration of this place is that we can discuss regulations but we cannot amend them. Almost never do we reject them. I cannot remember when regulations were rejected. Therefore, once we get to Third Reading and beyond, the rabbit is out of the hutch and there is nothing that can be done.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we have debated the issue of inherited SERPS on many occasions. Like your Lordships, I endorse the tenacity, good humour and degree of detailed information that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has brought to this matter on numerous occasions. I admire some of those virtues more than others.
We shall debate the matter once again once the regulations for the inherited SERPS scheme are drafted. I know that noble Lords opposite are suddenly filled with distaste for regulations, but perhaps I may point out that for 18 happy years the government of that time were perfectly pleased to carry quite substantial items through regulations without their necessarily being in the affirmative. This sudden change of heart when in Opposition is rather churlish. We are rather more scrupulous about using the affirmative rather than the negative procedure compared with the previous government.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree that the issue we are now talking about is of a magnitude unlike almost any other for so many people? To have to deal with that matter by regulations in this House seems churlish.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, on the contrary, we shall be bringing forward the structure of a scheme, but its details may involve quite specific levels of payment. They need to be uprated without having to return to primary legislation, otherwise we shall fall foul of the Henry VIII principle. It been well established in the field of social security that matters involving numbers normally have to be dealt with through regulations for uprating without involving primary legislation and all its consequences.
Baroness Warnock: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. The point is not that the detail has to be on the face of the Bill, but the principle. If the principle is there we may be content for the detail to come through regulations. I also point out that it may be true that a great deal was done by the Conservative government through regulations, but that was not willingly accepted by many Members on the Cross-Benches.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I do not mean to sound discourteous, but noble Lords who have a particular concern often wish to see matters on the face of the Bill which in other areas they would regard as inappropriate because they are either declaratory or, alternatively, far too detailed.
Consultation about regulations is under way and I am grateful for the constructive contributions that many noble Lords have already made to this exercise. This is a problem that we have inherited. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for his amendments because it gives me the opportunity to reassure the House about the way in which we envisage deciding claims to the inherited SERPS schemes. It also gives me an opportunity to say a little about how we propose to allow for the situation where a would-be applicant for redress is no longer able to provide evidence of what happened because of mental disability.
As your Lordships know, we undertook to consult widely, including the parliamentary ombudsman, the National Audit Office, the Social Security Advisory Committee, Age Concern, and other organisations, about the operation of the scheme. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for their contributions.
Our consultations are still progressing and I should not want to prejudge the outcome. I hope noble Lords will also understand where I am coming from and that I cannot anticipate some of the detail on which noble Lords might reasonably seek assurance until those consultations are complete.
This debate has reflected concern about the hoops and hurdles that many fear we may put in the way of applicants for redress. We have accepted the Parliamentary Commissioner's report and we are designing the scheme in a way that provides ready access to redress for those who are entitled to it.
If I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Rix, it is about the best way to put the provision into law. He prefers to add it to the face of the Bill. While I appreciate his intentions and largely share the aims of his amendment, I should not want to pre-empt the results of the consultation exercise. I therefore prefer that the Government use the greater flexibility that is provided by setting out the detail in regulations. The Bill sets the framework for the scheme, but we are not yet ready to define all the rules in detail and we need the maximum scope to respond to points such as those raised by the noble Lord, and other points that we have probably not yet anticipated.
Having said that, I am clear on the two issues raised by the noble Lord in his amendment. I shall now follow my script quite closely and my words may be made available for circulation to organisations in order to provide advice and at least giving the reassurances that the noble Lord seeks.
The noble Lord's first point related to people who received one of the leaflets that provided incorrect or incomplete information about the rules on inheritance of SERPS additional pension. I am clear that anyone who read one of those leaflets and who took the information contained in the leaflet into account in making decisions about building up their pension satisfies the principal test. That would also include people who took into account information passed on to them by, for example, friends or relations who had read the relevant leaflets. I am happy to confirm that this includes the clients of organisations such as Age Concern and citizens advice bureaux who were given incorrect or incomplete advice obtained originally from the DSS.
When the time comes for people to make their claims, we envisage asking them a few questions about how and roughly when they saw a leaflet. I want to make it clear that we shall not expect them to produce the leaflet or to quote it verbatim. Their own account of what they did is likely in many cases to be enough to reach the decision that they are entitled to redress to have their rights preserved. We have not finally decided what the regulations will say, and I should not want to be prescriptive at this point about all the circumstances we expect to cover, but I am happy to tell your Lordships that we shall make that clear.
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