John McDonnell MP
I declare an interest in that I am a member of the local government pension scheme. I want to address the amendments standing in my name—new clause 10 and amendments 22 and 24—but I would also like to comment on new clause 1.
On the debate about whether or not this is public money, I thought, as a member of the local government pension scheme, that the Supreme Court was pretty clear that this is not public money in the sense that would enable the Government to issue guidance. However, I have to say that new clause 1 goes further than guidance; it actually includes directions as well. I work on the basis, as I did when I was employed in local government, that the money I earned and the money forgone to invest in my pension scheme was my earned income; it was not public money under the control of the Government.
I think there is a lesson for us all here in that I believe that only in extremis—only in extremis—should the state interfere in one’s own privately earned income. I say that because, in the pension scheme regimes we have at the moment, we have an element of representative democracy with the trustees often being representatives of the workforce and other experts. That reassures me that, as a member of the pension fund, I have an element of say in what those trustees do, if they are appointed, and that enables me and other members of the pension fund to exercise an element of control over decision making, but also to exercise an element of conscience.
On moral grounds, I have argued very strongly within my own local government pension scheme—so far, I have to say, unsuccessfully—that I do not want the money I have earned, and part of my pension is my earned income, to be invested in a number of states. They include Saudi Arabia, because of its involvement in Yemen. In fact, I have organised demonstrations when there were visits from various representatives from Saudi Arabia to this country. I have argued that I do not want my pension invested in China because of the treatment of the Uyghurs. Again, I have engaged in demonstrations on that, and also on the moral ground that a number of trade union friends I have worked with over the years are currently in prison as a result of the operation undertaken by the Chinese state in Hong Kong. Yes, I have argued against investments going into Colombia because of the murder of trade unionists, and I have also argued against investments going into Israel because I do believe—according to the Amnesty human rights report, and many Jewish institutions—that it is an apartheid state in the way it treats the Palestinians.
That is my position: on moral grounds, I want to be able to influence the investments. I do not want my pension invested in armaments or fossil fuels either, and I believe that that is my right. I do not believe it is the role of the state to ride roughshod over my moral choices without extremely good reason. Given the threat of climate change and other matters, there may well be, in extremis, reasons for the state to act, but I do not think that this new clause is in that context.
The point I am making—I will finish on this element of it—is that I do not believe it is the role of the state to interfere in this way. Parliament can decide to expand the role of the state, but I think it begins to strain the limits of parliamentary democracy. I have listened to Conservative Ministers warn us in this Chamber about elective dictatorships, so I just warn hon. Members on both sides of the House that once these precedents are set, other Governments will be tempted to follow and, in some instances, go much further. I think this adds to the slow erosion of our civil liberties, freedom of choice and, indeed, human rights.
Let me move on to the new clause and amendments in my name. New clause 10 is a simple reflection of new clause 8, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), on the pensions trap. I want to echo what I think she said really eloquently in Committee and today about how the dialogue on this issue must continue, because there is an unfairness at the heart of the legislation we are pushing through at the moment. This affects firefighters, police superintendents and so on, who feel aggrieved, and I feel that a bit more dialogue may enable us to find a solution and restore their confidence in the pension scheme itself. That is why I support new clause 8.
My new clause 10 is simply more explicit about ensuring that there are consultations with the trade unions and other employee representative bodies, and that we seek to overcome the problem so that we have a non-discriminatory approach that does not fall foul of the law.
I turn to my amendment 24, which addresses a complex issue. It reminds me of the debate we had on the d’Hondt proportional representation system, as there were only two people who understood it: Mr d’Hondt, who died, and Jack Straw. Let me just go straight to the point on this matter. I am sorry if I go into some detail. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said in Committee that
“it is vital that we establish now, for the avoidance of any doubt, that no member benefits will be cut and no member contribution rates will increase as a result of the 2016 valuations. Any benefit improvements due will be honoured, but no additional costs will be imposed. I reassure the hon. Lady”—
my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn—
“on her important question, that the costs of our remedy genuinely sit with the Exchequer, not scheme members.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill [Lords] Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2022; c. 10.]
This is complicated stuff. There is a confusion of two issues here. The Government did make a mistake and were challenged in the courts. I fear that that cost burden will now fall on to members of the pension fund, if it is included in the cost mechanism as an employee cost. That is the issue.
I turn to two points in that regard. First, there is the cost to the scheme of giving members the option to choose which benefits—old or new—they want to accrue during the remedy period. Some members will choose benefits that are better for them than they would have received before the McCloud and Sargeant judgments. The scheme will clearly have to meet the cost of paying those benefits—fine. We got the assurance from the Minister that the money will flow—we think it is £17 billion; that is the last estimate—and the burden will not fall on to the members themselves, but that is not what we are talking about here. The issue here is what impact the cost of the remedy should have on the cost control mechanism. I remind Members that this is the mechanism for deciding whether members’ benefits should be changed or, alternatively, whether contributions could be changed.
There is no doubt that treating the cost of the remedy as an employee cost for the purposes of the cost control mechanism leaves members worse off than they would have been had it been treated as an employer cost. I draw the Chief Secretary’s attention to the helpful report from the House of Commons Library entitled “Public service pensions: the cost control mechanism”, which tells us that if we go back to the initial results of the 2012 scheme valuations, which were reported in 2018, the Government said that
“the protections in the new cost cap mechanism mean public sector workers [would] get improved pension benefits for employment over the period April 2019 to March 2023.”
It is those improved benefits that I believe are now at risk if the cost of the remedy is included as an employee cost and not an employer cost.
What does this mean? The improved benefits were required because members had suffered a reduction in the value of their expected benefits over the period 2012 to 2016 because of lower than expected pay increases and because longevity had not increased by as much as had been expected. In other words, the changes would not make members better off; they would simply maintain the value of the benefit package at the level that had been agreed. I apologise to Members, because this is complicated stuff, but it has to go on the record if we are to get redress on this, either today or in subsequent legal actions.
Given the requirement under the cost control mechanism, the respective scheme advisory board then set about agreeing the necessary changes in benefits. In other words, because the pay settlements had not been as large as predicted, and because people were not living as long as the predicted life expectancies, the cost burden on the scheme was less, which should have been reflected in benefits given back to members. The scheme advisory board started looking at what those benefits would be, and the Library report gives an example of packages of changes proposed for the civil service scheme, which included
“a reduction of member contributions; reform of the current contribution rate structure; and increased death benefits.”
The other schemes reflected similar sorts of benefits, so members would gain significantly as a result of this unfortunate situation—unfortunate because they never got enough pay settlements and never had the increase in life expectancy. Nevertheless, because those costs never fell on to the scheme, they should have been paid back to members.
In December 2018, the Court of Appeal ruled that part of the reforms amounted to unlawful discrimination. That was followed by the decision by the then Chief Secretary that the cost control element of the 2016 valuations should be put on hold. In other words, the members were to gain those benefits because of the cost control mechanism, the court decision took place, and the Government then froze the whole process. Eventually, the Government restarted the process and published the Treasury directions in October last year. The problem with the directions is that they treat the cost of remedying the Government’s mistake, as calculated for the purposes of the cost control mechanism, as a member cost, not an employer cost.
The important point to understand is that there is nothing inevitable about the remedy as a member cost. It has always been accepted that there are certain elements in the calculation involved in the cost control mechanism that are regarded as member costs that will impact on the cost control mechanism itself, but there are also other elements in the calculation that are employer costs and do not impact on the cost control mechanism. For example, the impact of changes in pay increases and mortality are obviously member costs, but changes in the discount rate and price increases are the employer costs. It is strongly argued by the trade unions, completely understandably, that mistakes made by the employer—that is, the Government—are employer costs.
What has never been discussed is how to treat the cost remedy incurred by the Government’s own error, and that is what needs to be addressed today. It was the Government’s mistake to have age discrimination in the scheme. The Minister in Committee said it was reflected in trade union representations, but as has been said by the Public Accounts Committee and others, the Government are the Government; they should have foreseen that there was the potential for discrimination. It is the Government who introduced the measures. It is the Government who are responsible for the Treasury directions and any legislation. It was a mistake by the Government. It is therefore logical that the cost of the remedy should be treated as an employer cost for the purposes of the cost control mechanism.
I apologise to hon. Members for the complexity of this, but it is important that we get on the record very explicitly that members of these pension funds should not have to pay in the long term for Government mistakes and should therefore have gained the benefit of either reduced contributions or enhanced benefits, because that is contained in what the Government agreed a number of years ago as the cost control mechanism.
Turning briefly to amendment 22, I say to hon. Members in both Houses that this is not the way to legislate: no matter who is in Government, no Member of Parliament should accept this style of legislation where significant changes are made at a very late stage in the production of a Bill. The Government have introduced completely new into this legislation an economic test. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn said, that falls foul of the agreement and the guarantees that were given that there would be a 25-year stable regime to administer public service pensions. Unions were told at that stage that there would be no surprises and this would last for a generation, and there would not be these significant amendments that have taken place. The Government are now saying there is going to be an economic test that will impose on the cost control mechanism the Government’s judgment, based upon Office for Budget Responsibility analysis and assessment of the economic trend. I have never considered the OBR as addressing issues ex cathedra with infallibility.
To be frank, we have no idea in any detail how this will operate. We have no idea how it will be transparent and open to debate. I have tabled my amendment because what I fear most is that this will be determined by Treasury direction. Treasury directions never come before this House. They are not like delegated legislation: they are made by Government themselves with no form of accountability. So the Government will be able to determine this economic test and effectively tear up the cost control mechanism that unions were promised would last 25 years. Whether benefits will go ahead and contribution levels will be determined by an OBR assessment of whether the economy can withstand the cost of that without any Member of this House having the ability to debate it, vote on it or determine it. That is why I believe Treasury directions are unsuitable for something so significant that will affect whether so many of our constituents will live in poverty in their retirement. For that reason, I believe the Minister needs to look again at how we can go forward to restore trust and confidence in the administration of public service pensions in the future, based upon some of the promises given a number of years ago to us as Members.