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Workplace Pension Saving

Volume 502: debated on Monday 7 December 2009

Our reforms to workplace pension saving, including automatic enrolment and the introduction of the personal accounts scheme, will result in between 5 million and 9 million people newly saving, or saving more, for their retirement.

The Minister will be well aware of Conservative criticism of the Government’s appalling record on pensions and the savings culture, but she may not be aware of the comments of the chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds, who said the other day:

“"The Government can no longer sit on its hands. It must take bold and positive action to help support employer-sponsored pensions.”

Even at this late hour, can the Minister get a grip on the issue, do something about it, and reverse the culture towards pensions that has prevailed in this country for far too long?

The Government are determined to support the provision of good private sector schemes. That is why we are in the middle of putting into effect the Turner commission’s proposals, which will ensure that between 5 million and 9 million people who do not currently have an opportunity to save begin to do so. We know of the hon. Gentleman’s views on the stresses on defined benefit final salary schemes so perhaps he will explain why the Conservatives want to reduce pension saving in the public sector.

What evidence have the Government that tax relief on pension contributions, particularly for higher-rate taxpayers, has any effect on savings for pensions? If the Government have such evidence, will they please send it to me?

I have seen no such evidence, although I have heard plenty of assertions since my right hon. Friend the Chancellor decided to reduce the tax relief available to those who earn more than £150,000 a year. As for the distribution of tax relief accorded to pensions savings, I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that 230,000 of the best-off people in the country currently receive £6.1 billion, or 25 per cent. of all that tax relief.

The Minister will know that the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority is now reduced to just two potential bidders to provide the massive IT system for personal accounts and that it will have personal data on millions of employees who have never been pensioned before. Is she concerned about that and, in particular, would she be concerned if one or both of those bidders held those sensitive data offshore?

I would certainly not be concerned about the fact that the competitive dialogue being led by the authority has now reduced the number of potential bidders from four to two. One would expect that as part of a dialogue. Clearly we must be careful about the way in which personal data are held, and it is certainly true that the security of personal data is very important in this context. I assure the hon. Gentleman that those concerns are being taken into account adequately in continuing discussions between the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority and the potential bidders who are still left in the competition.

Workplace pensions are extremely important for employers and employees, but will the Minister also have discussions with the trade unions to encourage them to play a positive role in encouraging such schemes?

I regularly see stakeholders on all sides of the pensions issue, including trade unions, as well as suppliers and stakeholders in the pensions industry itself. The trade unions have long played an important role, such as by providing trustees to ensure that pension funds are properly and adequately looked after and administered. I intend, of course, to continue seeing representatives of all sides of the pensions industry. It is important that employees as well as employers have the confidence that the pensions they are putting aside are being properly administered. That is why it is also important that, for the first time ever, we have the Pension Protection Fund, which ensures that, in the event of private sector insolvency, there are protections for those who have paid into, and invested in, private pension funds.

But can the Minister confirm that 100,000 pension schemes have been wound up since 1997 and that the number of active members has halved from 5.1 million in 1995 to 2.6 million according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures published very recently? Is it any wonder that a survey conducted by the Minister’s own Department showed that 51 per cent. of people do not trust the Government to act in their best interests on pensions?

It is important to understand that the decline in final salary or defined benefit schemes, which the hon. Gentleman refers to, has been going on since the 1960s, when I was at school, so it was rather a long time ago. There is no magic bullet in preserving defined benefit schemes. Perhaps he will also acknowledge his party’s role in the creation of personal pensions and the mis-selling scandals of the 1980s, which also destroyed confidence in pension-saving schemes.