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Volume 77: debated on Thursday 18 April 1985

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I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 13, line 3, after 'paragraphs', insert '0,'.

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 65, amendment No. 66, in schedule 2, page 31, line 26, leave out from 'at' to end of line 27 and insert

'the offices of the Inland Revenue Superannuation Funds Office'. and Government amendments Nos. 73, 90 and 91.

Amendment No. 65 substitutes a new version of section 56B in schedule 2 which provides for the establishment of a register of occupational pension schemes. In particular, the new version provides that the registrar may be a body corporate rather than an individual and that some of the work may be privatised. The other amendments are consequential in various degrees of detail.

We are listening very carefully to the points raised about the proposed register. As it is such an important issue, I must detain the House for a few moments on it. There is fairly general support for the aims behind the proposal, but there is widespread doubt as to whether a full-blown public registry is justified or needed to achieve the aims which are generally recognised. We told the Committee that we should be considering all the options with an open mind, and that is what we are doing. If. for example, rather than setting up a new institution we cart develop the role of one or more existing bodies to encompass the required functions, we shall consider that Again, if a registry can be provided economically on our behalf by the private sector, that would also be considered. The amendments give us full flexibility, once the decision has been taken, as to how to operate any register that is to be run. The nature and extent of its functions are also left open to subsequent decision in the light of more detailed consideration of the options.

We have set up an official steering group to make proposals about the way in which the register would work. The detailed task of identifying and evaluating options has been given to a small project team under the joint leadership of an independent management consultant, Thornton Baker Associates, and an official of the Department. The terms of reference for the project team emphasise, among other things, the need for economy in the use of staff and the need to avoid placing unreasonable burdens on schemes. We shall examine very carefully the possible problems of confidentiality which a public register might encounter.

At this stage, we have no preconceptions about how our aims, which are very clear, may best be achieved. The decisions can be made only in the light of the detailed evaluation of the various options which is now in progress. Our overriding concern is to identify an efficient and cost-effective solution which does not put undue costs and problems on the pensions industry which, as we all agree and as my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) emphasised, is an important part of our activities.

I am more than a little astonished at what the Minister has said. I had understood from the amendment that this was probably yet another attempt to privatise something from which somebody could make a profit. I was more than a little amazed to hear the Minister say that it might be good for the registrar to have agents rather than there to be a fully public register in the interests of confidentiality. I thought that the whole point of having a register was that it would be public and readily available.I note that the Government are deleting some of the original and detailed descriptions in the Bill.

We are deeply unhappy about the suggestion that the registrar's functions might be privatised and have grave doubts about the registrar appointing agents. That seems to suggest that information might be scattered all over the place, thus making it difficult for the Government, let alone anyone else, to use it. As it seems from the Minister's comments that that is the whole idea, I wonder why the Government are bothering to go ahead with rules for the registrar.

I do not wish to nit pick, but I have read amendment No. 73 at least eight times. It is utterly meaningless and perhaps should not exist. It suggests that we leave out subsection (2) and insert subsection (10), and yet the amendment is in subsection (10) and refers to subsection (2). There might be an error there. It might be me, but I think it might be the Department.

The redrafting is to be greatly welcomed. In Committee, I mentioned the possibility of the register being operated by the Occupational Pensions Board or by the superannuation funds office of the Inland Revenue, or a combination of both as they operate from the same building and apparently have all the knowledge and expertise needed to run a register. Is that option still open to consideration? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government have set themselves firmly against a new Department with about 100 civil servants?

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) should not get too excited. The amendments give my right hon. Friend the greatest flexibility when considering carefully the outcome of the consultations which we are convinced are important because of their inevitably long-standing nature which is inherent in the pension scheme. I understand that the word "privatisation" sends bad vibes down the spines of Opposition Members. No decisions have been made. The research and consultations are continuing. I must extend the same reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley). None of the options is closed.

The essence of these provisions is to secure safeguards for pension scheme members. The hon. Lady must understand that considerations of confidentiality are important to those who operate pension funds. I understand that the drafting problem to which she referred is a correction of a cross-reference in section 56C back section 56B, but if there is any remaining confusion I shall be happy to write to the hon. Lady.

Amendment agreed to.