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Mr. Hughes : Perhaps I should clarify the matter. The estate was built by the GLC, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recalls. When the GLC was wound up, the plans would have gone into the archives and we would have thought that a copy would have gone to Southwark. The borough cannot find its copy and nobody knows whether the copy is alive or dead.

Mr. Thorne : I should have thought that the London building inspectors would also have had plans, because they would have had responsibilities as well. There must also have been foundation plans to show drainage works.

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It is surprising that all the plans that these bodies would have had have disappeared. That is unfortunate, and shows how careless some people can be. Clearly, LRT is doing the right thing in carrying out the investigation. The question of who is responsible will be a legal matter and I am sure that that will be pursued by the appropriate legal authorities of both the London borough of Southwark and the LRB. On the basis of what they find, they will decide whose the responsibility is, and that must be the right and proper way to do it.

The hon. Gentleman said that if a certain property were acquired, it should be subject to total extinguishment compensation. I am afraid that I have no knowledge of that. I have been trying to find out the details, but have not managed to do so. If the hon. Gentleman can find addresses, I will make sure that that is investigated and that a letter is written to him on that issue. It is clear that that should be properly looked after. We cannot have people suffering unduly because they are held in limbo.

The promoters respectfully request that the Lords amendments to the Bill be agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I understand that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) wishes to divide the House on the amendment to clause 33.

Ms. Hoey : There is probably no point, at this stage. I have made my views clear and, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) said, London Underground is dealing with the matter. I hope that, in about four weeks' time, the situation will be different, so I will not push the amendment to a vote.

Question put and agreed to.

Remaining Lords amendments agreed to.

LONDON DOCKLANDS RAILWAY (LEWISHAM, etc.) (No. 2) BILL Order for Second Reading read.

Bill read a Second time and committed.

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Postponed proceeding resumed.

7.55 pm

Miss Widdecombe : As I was saying before seven o'clock, our aim is to maintain the momentum of our personal pensions policy and we expect to see a continuing take-up among young people. However, it is important that the structure of the rebate should not act as a disincentive to those who wish to retain their personal pension throughout their working life. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that if the Labour party were ever in a position to do so, and were able to carry out its oft-stated threat that it would abolish the incentives for personal pensions, some 4.7 million putative pensioners, most of them of modest salaries up to about £9,700, and their families would undoubtedly find their pensions much reduced. That should be clearly understood.

We have announced that we would be consulting the pensions industry and other interested parties on the implications of equal treatment for the current arrangements for contracting out following the Barber judgment. Hon. and right hon. Members will recall that this judgment was given by the European Court of Justice in May 1990. The judgment held that occupational pensions are pay. In consequence, benefits from occupational schemes have to be equal as between men and women. Consultations are under way, and it is clear that changes will be needed to the basis on which pension schemes can be contracted out of SERPS. In considering what those changes should be, we intend now to give particular consideration to the scope for moving from flat-rate rebates to rebates related to age, at least for personal pensions and possibly also for other contracted-out schemes. Decisions on how to achieve equality in state pension age, on which we issued a discussion paper in December, will also have an important bearing on the many complex and detailed issues which will need to be resolved. The new age-related addition of 1 per cent. that will be payable from April 1993 will mean that the vast majority of current personal pension holders are likely to find that it is in their interests to maintain their personal pensions. We intend to bring forward the necessary legislation in the new Parliament.

I hope that I have demonstrated to the House how we have continued to safeguard the interests of those people who are contracted out through the rebate and the buy-back terms. Hon. Members will see, I think, not only how complex is this subject, but how these two statutory instruments fit in to the Government's overall pension policy, and I commend them to the House.

7.58 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : I apologise to the Minister for my delayed appearance.

Miss Widdecombe : It is nice to see the hon. Gentleman now.

Mr. Allen : The business took me by surprise. I thought that the debate would resume at 10 o'clock. It has, of course, started rather earlier.

It is appropriate that Conservative control of social security is ending as it began, with a small, sly and squalid act of redistribution from the have nots to the haves. Over

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the past 13 years we have experienced one of the most massive redistribution exercises undertaken by any Government. I am sad to say that redistribution has all been in the wrong direction--to those who have relatively high incomes and, often, away from those who have quite small incomes.

The average family now has a higher tax burden than it had in 1979. Somebody earning £70,000 per year is now benefiting from income tax cuts to the tune of about £700 a week. Those on the highest incomes are enjoying enormous benefits.

We are dealing with a transparent and perhaps pitiful little bribe. From those who quibble about the little extra money that is required to assist the disabled, the unemployed, the poverty-stricken and the state pensioner, we see their final act of hypocrisy : the Government are using £175 million to sweeten personal pension holders.

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman is talking about personal pension holders in the same breath as he talks about the haves. Will he confirm that most personal pension holders are on modest incomes of, on average, about £9,700?

Mr. Allen : I am sure that that is so. I shall have to ask the Department's private office to write to the hon. Lady in four of five weeks time to confirm that.

The bribe will not work because many of those who were lured into private pension schemes are now faced with the other fruits of the economic miracle, which was trumpeted so loudly only a few weeks ago. Many of these people are now behind with their mortgage repayments. They face the possibility of their homes being repossessed. These people live perhaps in daily fear that their job may not continue to be available to them. The insecurity that is brought about by the possibility of redundancy looms over many. Perhaps they work in recession-hit businesses that stare closure in the face.

Such people may have learnt the bitter lesson of experience. There was no such thing as a free lunch and there was and is no such thing as a freebie pension. Somebody somewhere has to pay the price for these give-aways. No one on the Opposition Benches and no one in the next Labour Government is or will be opposed to private pensions. Those who wish to take out a private pension will always be free to do so. Our objection is that the state pensioner and the ordinary taxpayer subsidise private pensions from their and our pension funds. They are standing on our two feet and not their own. This measure is another straightforward transfusion from our national insurance fund to the private pension companies.

Pensioners of the future are being bled of their funds, often without their knowledge. This is largely because pensions, pension funds and the national insurance fund are extremely technical and people do not realise what will happen to their pension until the time comes when they wish to claim it.

We have heard much today elsewhere in this place about occupational pension funds and the need to close loopholes so that we can prevent another Maxwell. Compared with the £6 billion rip-off of our state pension funds by the Conservatives, Robert Maxwell was a poor, dabbling amateur. I advise the Secretary of State for Social Security not to take too many boat trips in the near future. Were he to have neglected his fiduciary duty as a councillor in this way, he would be looking at the world now from

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behind bars. Looser rules apply to central Government than to local government. There can be fewer clearer cases of Conservative double standards. At the same time as that £600 million is being put into private pensions, the ordinary single state pensioner finds that his or her pension is worth £17 a week less because Conservatives decided to break the link between pensions and the rise in earnings. The pension of a married couple is worth £28 a week less.

Miss Widdecombe : That does not have much to do with the rebate.

Mr. Allen : It is sad that the Minister says that from a sedentary position. She suggests that there is no great connection. It is clear from my examples that the hon. Lady and her fading Government support certain features of the pension industry but disregard the increases that state pensioners would have enjoyed had there been a Labour Government for the past 13 years instead of a Conservative Administration. As I have said, the married pensioner couple are £28 a week worse off while the loss to the single pensioner is £17 a week.

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman appears to be misleading the House. He is saying that there is a direct link between the level of the state pension and the rebate that we are giving on personal pensions. Will he confirm that the £6 billion which he quotes includes the ordinary contracted-out rebate for occupational schemes, which I take it the Labour party is not opposed to and has no plans to repeal? Does he understand that there will be a saving for the national insurance fund of about £0.2 billion a year as a result of our measures to encourage people into taking up personal pensions? If that is so and there is a saving to the fund, how can there be a direct link between the rebate and the level of the state pension? As the hon. Gentleman is talking about levels of state pensions-- this appears not to have been ruled out of order--surely the overall level of pensioners' incomes is what really matters. Those incomes have increased by 33 per cent. under this Conservative Government while under the Labour Government they increased by a miserable 3 per cent.

Mr. Allen : I am pleased that the Minister is paying due credit to the state earnings-related pension scheme, which was introduced by the Labour Government and which has done so much for pensioners' incomes. It would have done so much more had it not been tampered with by the Government. The concept of incomes for pensioners has been undermined by the way in which the Government have abused SERPS. At the same time £6 billion has been found to assist private pensions. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I am well aware that the National Audit Office produced a superb report that outlined the way in which the fund had been abused. The Minister will know all too well that the saving that has resulted from the failure to link pensions to the rise in earnings is now £21 billion. It is--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman a lot of leeway, but he has gone too far now. We must return to the question of rebates.

Mr. Allen : I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was merely seeking to answer the Minister's questions as posed. They were, as you say, a little wide of the mark.

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Pensioners have been sacrificed on the altar of the free market. The free pensions market is incapable of competing with the public sector without the prop or crutch of massive subsidies. Pension holders would have deserted private pensions in droves and returned to SERPS had the Conservatives not offered this pathetic bribe. It would have been a humiliation for the Government, they having already spent billions on trying falsely to inflate the private pension sector.

In a few weeks, the dirty, derelict, partial and unequal mess which masquerades as the Conservatives' pension policy will have to be hosed down. Then we can set about rebuilding SERPS, strengthening the state pensioners' basic income, protecting occupational pensioners and ensuring a bracing draught of equal treatment for private pensions. In each area of reform the pensioner and the prospective pensioner will be the beneficiary. That is what we shall do in four or five weeks' time.

8.9 pm

Miss Widdecombe : With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps I could reply to one or two points that have been spuriously raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). I should like to start with a challenge, as challenges are all the fashion. Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear whether the Labour party is saying that, in the unlikely event that it forms the next Government, it will remove the 2 per cent. incentive ? If so, does he accept that there is no way that it can do that other than retrospectively over the course of the year ? Is he saying that it will retrospectively remove the 2 per cent. incentive ? Is he also saying that it will not implement the 1 per cent. incentive ? That information is very necessary so that we know exactly what to tell the 4.7 million people in those schemes whose pensions, and the size of them, will depend on these policies.

Mr. Allen : The 1 per cent. proposal is not even before the House tonight, so we can only suspect that until the primary legislation is brought in all this is merely electioneering. It is hard to abolish something that is just a pre-election promise. If there is another Conservative Government, we shall see what they introduce. On the queston of the 2 per cent., I am pleased to refer the hon. Lady to what the future Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), said in the debate two weeks ago.

Miss Widdecombe : We can take that as confirmation that the Labour party would abolish the 2 per cent. retrospectively and not implement the 1 per cent. That message should go out to 4.7 million putative pensioners on modest incomes and to their families. We shall see exactly what credence the Labour party's pensions policy has with those who matter.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Social Security (Class 1

Contributions--Contracted-out Percentages) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 27th February, be approved.


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That the draft State Scheme Premiums (Actuarial Tables) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 27th February, be approved.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]


Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Commonwealth Development Corporation

That the draft Commonwealth Development Corporation (Raising of Limits on Borrowing and Advances) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 12th February, be approved-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Urban Development

That the Birmingham Heartlands Development Corporation (Area and Constitution) Order 1992, dated 12th February 1992, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Question agreed to.

Statutory Instruments, &c.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : With the leave of the House, I shall put together the four motions on Representation of the People.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Representation of the People

That the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.

That the draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 14th February, be approved.

That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 14th February, be approved.

That the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 21st February, be approved.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Social Security

That the draft Social Security (Contributions) Amendment (No. 4) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 12th February, be approved.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Terms and Conditions of Employment

That the draft Statutory Sick Pay (Small Employer's Relief) Amendment Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 19th February, be approved.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Question agreed to.

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Kirklees Council

8.12 pm

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : I wish to present a petition to the House that calls for Kirklees council to be split and a new council, based on the Huddersfield area, to be created. The petition has 8,053 signatures by people both from within my constituency and from the remainder of Huddersfield. They no longer want councillors from Batley and Dewsbury to have a say in the affairs of their area. They do not identify with Kirklees, which many of them feel is too big, too bureaucratic and too unaccountable.

The petition follows a phone-in organised last year by the local newspaper, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, when more than 14,000 people called for Kirklees to be split and only 400 supported the status quo.

I support the campaign to split Kirklees and I hope and believe that it will be successful. The petition states :

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House, following consultation with the Local Government Boundary Commissioners, legislates to disband Kirklees council and create a local authority named Greater Huddersfield to incorporate Huddersfield, the Colne and Holme Valleys, Denby Dale, Kirkburton and parts of Mirfield.

To lie upon the Table.

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Magistrates Courts

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

8.14 pm

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) : I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is here to respond to what I think is an important debate about the proposed closure of magistrates courts. I am delighted also that the anxiety of the House to reach this important item of business had brought its affairs to a conclusion rather earlier than expected. I hope that that is some compensation for any inconvenience that this early debate might cause. There is a proposal to close the Faversham magistrates court. It has a history dating back to a Royal Charter of 1361. It is a local institution, much valued by the local community, local solicitors and local justices. It is almost certainly the best value courthouse in Kent. The saving from closure would be £17,000 per annum plus, perhaps, some of the clerks' time and other incidental costs. There are no capital or repair costs as the court is in accommodation rented from the borough council. It is very fine accommodation. The court room was modernised 10 years ago and there is a holding room, a retiring room, private facilities for justices, interview rooms for solicitors and waiting rooms. The court sits most days of most weeks. It is the very embodiment of what we in England think of as local justice, coupled with occasional visits not from local people, but from well-known outsiders such as Terry Wogan, who appeared on one occasion with great publicity. It is outstandingly good value for money.

As I will explain, we have gained a six-months reprieve, and I and others intend to use that time to get the Faversham decision reversed. If we are accused of being parochial, I plead guilty, but I think that we will have co-defendants throughout the land because hundreds of local courthouses are at risk. I have the document from the Kent magistrates courts committee outlining the scale of the threat to Kent. The same threat exists for other counties and districts throughout England--all arising from the need to meet the new funding formula introduced by the Home Office.

The Kent proposals are described as measures for consideration and are designed to meet a possible deficit of £682,000 by the end of a five- year transitional period. The proposal is to close Margate and Ramsgate courts or to amalgamate them, closing one courthouse. Either Ashford or Folkestone would be closed. In Medway, Dartford and Gravesham, the benches would be amalgamated and one courthouse closed. In Canterbury, Faversham and Sittingbourne, the closure of Faversham is assumed and there is consideration of the closure of Sheerness. In Maidstone, there is consideration of the amalgamation of the benches and the closure of West Malling and Tonbridge. In west Kent, there is consideration of the closure of the Tunbridge Wells office and courthouse and the amalgamation of both benches. Those are proposals and options and there will, of course, be much resistance. Some will undoubtedly be saved, but we should be quite clear that many will be lost and there will be a question mark against the future of all

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of them for many years to come. That is the picture in Kent, where under the formula it is a losing county by a forecast amount of £682, 000.

Other counties and districts are similarly at risk. The list shows more than 30 losing areas. East Sussex loses 20 per cent. of its budget-- £860,000 ; Bedfordshire loses £405,000 ; Cheshire £809,000 ; Cornwall £318,000 ; Hereford and Worcester £722,000--and I could continue. Hundreds of local courts will close unless the formula is modified. I hope that other right hon. and hon. Members will note the prospective losses in income to their counties and districts, translate them into the effect that they will have on local court houses, and make their concerns known to my right hon. Friend the Minister.

I appreciate the helpful and courteous way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister responded to the representations that I and a number of my hon. Friends representing Kent constituencies made, once the scale of the threat became clear. My right hon. Friend also set out in a written answer on 6 February the policy guidelines for the closure of magistrates courts and said that he would, within those guidelines, take a robust but sympathetic view of any closure proposals that came before him.

That answer was, as one would expect of the Home Office, skilfully worded, but I take comfort from my right hon. Friend's commitment to the principle of a quality local service for communities. I also infer a commitment even to smaller local courthouses--except where buildings are old and unsuitable, lacking facilities, and are costly to maintain or repair. I deduce also from my right hon. Friend's reply that court committees should not assume that arguments of so-called efficiency should inevitably lead to the closure of small courthouses.

A significant problem is that a proposal to close a court house will not be referred to the Minister responsible unless the local paying authority--in our case, Kent county council--decides to appeal against the decision. In the case of Faversham, I was shocked when, after a series of discussions and representations, the county council felt that it could not enter an objection.

For some historic reason that is not clear to me, the local paying authority contributes 20 per cent. to the cost of running magistrates courts. I hope that the Home Office or the Lord Chancellor's Department will seriously consider abandoning that system, particularly in the light of the reorganisation of court administration, and that which is certain to take place in local government.

I see no logical reason why we should persist with a system whereby local authorities pay 20 per cent. towards the maintenance and running of magistrates courts. If it were discontinued, we might enter into a simpler and more efficient arrangement. Meanwhile, it is even more indefensible that county councils and other paying authorities should have the right to determine whether or not there is to be an appeal.

On 1 April, responsibility for magistrates courts will be transferred from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor's Department, when a new junior Minister will be appointed. We do not know who he or she will be. I do not wish that post upon my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, but we know for certain that the person appointed will be a Conservative Member of Parliament.

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Incidentally, my remarks are addressed as much to my right hon. Friend as to the Lord Chancellor, their successors, and those working in Departments who interpret the policy and wishes of our Ministers and of the legislation.

I request that all closures should henceforth be referred to the Lord Chancellor, and that the necesary amendments to legislation should be promptly introduced after the general election. Only in that way can local views be heard. Under the present system, the question whether an appeal will be made is arbitrarily determined by the county council. If it does not choose that course--perhaps for reasonable, internal, and possibly financial reasons--local opinion, local councillors, and local justices have no right to be heard. That cannot be fair and proper.

On this occasion, I am supported only by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed), who is in his place, though I suspect that I have the support also of others of my hon. Friends who represent Kent constituencies. I do not doubt that in the coming months, as the proposal's true implications begin to be understood, we will be joined by right hon. and hon. Members representing constituencies throughout England.

The only way that we can achieve a fair hearing is if the system is changed. I am convinced that we need to re-examine the way that the new, cash-limit funding formula operates. I suspect that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends will press for that to happen. As soon as the new Ministers are known, I and my hon. Friends will seek a meeting with the Lord Chancellor to discuss the issue. Any help that my right hon. Friend the Minister can give now or then will be greatly valued.

There is no objection to cash limits. Even those who are responsible for administration reacted constructively to that concept. There has already been a healthy response to the financing arrangements, but there are objections to the use of a formula that produces wide swings in funding. What is the logic of a system that, for example, takes £680,000 from Kent and gives nearly £1 million to Avon? Is it suggested that Avon is not bringing enough prosecutions because it does not have the court facilities? I think not. Why take money from another county? It could be argued that it is inefficient, but why bestow a gift on another part of the United Kingdom simply because it is not performing its proper duties? The whole system is fundamentally flawed and ought to be reviewed.

One of the formula's main components is the number of prosecutions, but that is not something that courts can control. Magistrates cannot determine the number of prosecutions that are brought. Kent crime figures, I am sad to say, are on the increase--but for some reason the number of prosecutions brought in the county is significantly below that of our neighbours. If Kent's ratio of defendants per 1,000 population rose over the next year to equal the average for the south-east, under the formula its funding would increase significantly--but by then many of Kent's courthouses might have closed.

The Home Office accepts that the accuracy of all such data should be verified by external auditors, but surely that work should be undertaken before courthouses are closed and staff are made redundant. We want the formula examined now, before it is too late. The argument is about the distribution of resources, not cuts. Kent's figure for 1992-93 will be nearly £7 million, or 19 per cent. higher than 1990-91. The argument is not against building modern courthouses and closing

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inefficient courthouses. It is a powerful argument for a more sensitive and more intelligent application of funding that helps to maintain local justice and the local magistracy wherever we possibly and sensibly can.

That judgment must take into account all costs to public funds, as was mentioned in my right hon. Friend's written answer. It must take into account also the time and expenses incurred by the general public in travelling to courthouses that might be a great distance away, and the cost to the legal aid fund of solicitors who will be required to travel to distant courts because a local facility has been lost. In Faversham's case, it is estimated that additional legal aid costs alone would probably outweigh the supposed saving achieved by closing that court.

We have gained a six-month reprieve for Faversham, thanks to the open- mindedness of the magistrates committee in responding to the many representations it has received, and to the work done by Mr. John Gorham-- an ex-political opponent of mine, who is chairman of the local bench. That demonstrates that ours is an all-party effort that has no political angle. It is due also to the work of many others--but no thanks to Kent county council, whose response greatly disappointed me.

I make no bones about it. I want to use this reprieve, and the Faversham proposal, as a lever to protect our Kent network of local courts, and to change the cash-limits formula. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the Lord Chancellor receives that message, and that there is a general understanding in Whitehall of the need to respond to all the Members of Parliament who are defending our system of local justice, and who will continue to do so in the coming months.

8.29 pm

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