John McDonnell MP
I want to focus briefly on part 1 of the Bill, which addresses the McCloud judgment. I think we have to acknowledge that what we are having to deal with is an absolute mess in the management of public sector pension schemes by the Government, exposed by the McCloud judgment. It was a mess created not by the members of the public schemes themselves, who have been congratulated across the House this evening on the public service commitment that they are demonstrating at the moment, but by Government decisions. As this mess was created by Government decisions, it follows that the cost and the burden of clearing up this Government-created mess should fall not on the pension scheme members themselves, but on the Government.
Because I have received so many representations from constituents on this matter, I want to get some of the narrative clarified on the record. It is worth going back into the mists of time to fully understand the context and the genesis of this dog’s breakfast, as it was described in the other place.
I am grateful to Bryn Davies—Lord Davies of Brixton—a Member of the other place, our foremost pensions expert, formerly the TUC’s actuary and pensions adviser, and subsequently adviser to numerous trade unions and associations, for the explanatory notes that he has provided to a number of us and the issues that he has raised in the other place. Bryn Davies reminded me of the history of the pension reforms that have laid the path to this chaotic state that we are now trying to resolve.
The mechanism for managing the future funding of public sector pensions stems originally from the discussions between the Labour Government and the trade unions in 2006. It was those discussions that resulted in a broad relationship agreement—the Warwick agreement—and also agreed a series of pension reforms. The aim, quite rightly, was to stabilise for the long term the funding of pension schemes to enable decent pension schemes to be provided, and to tackle, to be frank, the fact that some people who had provided a service throughout their career were finding, contrary to what the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, and contrary to what was being reported in a number of papers, that they were being provided with a pension on which they were hardly able to survive.
In 2011, following those discussions, the coalition Government commissioned the Hutton report, which led to the Public Service Pensions Act 2013. That Act provided the basis of the existing system, including the cost control mechanism that we are addressing in this Bill. The key element of the cost control mechanism was that the cost to the employer of each of the public service schemes was fixed as a percentage of pay, which meant that if the cost of providing a scheme increased—I remember the debate and the predictions that were made—for instance due to some scheme members living longer than expected, it was agreed that either benefits would be reduced or members’ contributions would be increased. A number of us did not like it, but that was what the House agreed because it was seen by some as a fair process for the future.
If the cost of providing a scheme fell, such as if pensionable pay did not increase at the expected rate, benefits would be increased or members’ contributions would be reduced. That was the equivalence that was agreed, and it was considered fair. I remember the debate, and it was also agreed that things would stay as they were if the change was less than 2% in either direction.
It was always agreed that some types of additional costs would be the responsibility of the Government—employer costs, as defined, as opposed to member costs. In 2012 the Treasury published a report that spelled out the difference. Employer costs were exemplified by changes in actuarial methodology or changes in the discount rate. The logical argument made by the unions is that the additional costs resulting from remedying the Government’s actions in this case, as exposed by the McCloud judgment determining that the Government’s actions were unlawful, are the responsibility of the Government, and therefore fall squarely into the category of employer costs, not member costs.
This is critical because the cost of the schemes, as used for control purposes, has usually fallen, largely because pay rises have not been as high as expected or because life expectancy has not improved as was previously predicted. If we abide by the agreements that were legislated for in this House, pension scheme members should have received either improvements in benefits or reductions in contributions, or a combination of the two, because the cost of the schemes has fallen.
Instead it appears that the Government are minded to treat the remedy costs of the McCloud judgment—the costs of remedying the Government’s illegal actions—as member costs. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) that the cumulative cost could be £17 billion. This kicks in the cost control mechanism, as in some schemes the cost will rise by more than 2%. This would usually have resulted in cuts in benefits or increased contributions, so at least the Government have introduced a waiver to prevent that from happening.
However, this does not assist my constituents who rightly argue that they have been robbed by the Government and forced to pay over the odds in pension contributions but will receive no additional benefits. In fact, they feel they have been hit by a double whammy, having had their pay virtually frozen or cut but, as a result, still losing out on pension contribution savings. The impact for some will be the prospect of hardship in retirement as a result of not receiving the full benefits of their scheme as originally agreed. For many others, the measures will undermine the incentive to contribute to the pension schemes that are available to them. We have already seen more than 270,000 who are open to joining the scheme dropping out of it. This disincentivisation means that pensioners will be living in greater hardship and poverty and will therefore be reliant on state benefits, so there will be no saving to the Government overall. From the discussions I have had with my constituents and a range of trade union representatives and members, I know that there is a sense of betrayal among pension scheme members.
Another issue that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East raised was the pensions trap, which has been highlighted by the police associations, particularly the Police Superintendents Association, and by the firefighters, in which the value of the contributions and the pension declines with additional years of service. That is a contradiction that needs to be resolved by the Government, and I hope that that will be undertaken as the Bill goes into Committee and comes back to this House.
The discussion around pensions is as sensitive as the issue of pay, if not more so at times. These are always sensitive policy issues, and people naturally have strong feelings about them. It is worrying to me that, as Bryn Davies—Lord Davies in the other place—highlighted, the key decisions on whether the remedy cost is a members’ cost or an employers’ cost, and on whether the cost of the remedy should be spread over four years as suggested by the Government, are neither on the face of the Bill nor being dealt with by delegated legislation. Instead, under section 12 of the Public Service Pensions Act 2013, these issues will be dealt with by “Treasury directions”. That means that financial obligations will be placed on scheme members without effective parliamentary decision making or scrutiny. These are not technical matters; they are matters of high policy and they affect many of our constituents. They are a matter of public concern and they have generated anger among many of our constituents at what they feel is the unjust way they are being treated. Members of this House should insist that these decisions are subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny and proper parliamentary decision making.
Much of what we are debating in part 1 of the Bill will almost inevitably be the subject of further legal challenge by a large number of trade unions and possibly, we hear, even by the British Medical Association. I fear that, rather than remedying the Government’s errors and lack of judgment, the Bill will almost wilfully compound those past errors and possibly exacerbate the strong feelings of injustice felt by many of our constituents. I say to the Minister that considerable thought needs to be given to these issues in Committee and possibly on Report, to ensure that the Government do not lay the burden of the failure of past Government policy making on the innocent shoulders of many of our constituents, who, as has rightly been said today, are providing essential services across a communities at a time when we desperately need them.