I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 125475 relating to the Local Government Pension Scheme.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I appreciate that, on the face of it, the motion is about the corporate governance of local authority pension funds in England and Wales, and the interaction with central Government in certain circumstances, but it is also about infrastructure investment in a broad sense. In introducing the debate, I am minded that it is about local authority schemes in England and Wales, but it forms part of a wider debate on corporate governance and infrastructure investment globally. Indeed, there are important initiatives in that regard in Scotland. The primary reason I am introducing the debate is in my capacity as a member of the Petitions Committee, but I should also note that I am the Scottish National party spokesperson on pensions.
On 23 September, new regulations affecting local government pension schemes were laid before the House and they come into force in just a few days’ time, on 1 November. To put that in context, we are talking about a very large market in the UK. According to the Local Government Pension Scheme Advisory Board, as of 2015 local authority schemes held £217 billion of assets, across 91 local authority pension funds that have 5 million members.
We should welcome the principle of infrastructure investment and pooled funds, but we also need to recognise the debate in the overall context of pension funds. Of course, across the pension fund landscape, there is a desire for growing diversification; and there is the issue of low returns from Government bonds, which affects many pension funds, and the questions of whether they go into deficit and how they meet their future liabilities. In that regard, the debate about infrastructure investment is important, and the costs and benefits, and the potential returns, of pooling local authority pension funds are worth considering.
Other countries, most notably Canada, have already embraced those challenges and have done so with what is perhaps a more effective corporate governance model than the one we have today in the United Kingdom.
Previously, I served as my party’s shadow Pensions Minister and I was struck by the concern of people I met, particularly scheme members, about where and how their own funds were invested. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is the wishes of scheme members that should be paramount in any corporate governance model to which he is referring?
Absolutely. I found myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman many times when we were on our respective Front Benches and it is good to see him here for this debate today. I agree with him because the funds belong to the 5 million scheme members. They are their funds and it is about their future. We should remember what a pension is—a pension is deferred income.
When someone is making that contribution, of course they should have a say. That is why I referred to the corporate governance model in Canada. One of the things I will go on to talk about today is a carrot-and-stick approach from the Government, but there has to be a consensus and I am concerned about the Government’s ability to intervene in local authority pension schemes. Although I understand and support, in broad terms, what the Government are doing in promoting pooled funds and infrastructure investment, it has to be done in partnership with the local authority pension funds.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will give way first to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty).
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and agree with much of what he has said and indeed with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds).
I, too, have been contacted by many members of the local scheme and by representatives of Unison, the trade union, who have great concerns about the undemocratic way in which they see the process going forward, and indeed concerns about the process that the Government have used. Whatever their individual views might be on where investment should or should not go, and on whether that is for economic, financial or ethical reasons, the process seems to them to be fundamentally undemocratic.
Again, I find myself in agreement with that. The Government should reflect on the consultation that is taking place and, hopefully, on the voices that will be raised today, because they have to take on board that, in making the changes that they are talking about, they need that wide body of support.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will give way in a second but I want to make a point. We need to have a wider discussion about how we will get an attractive return on investment, not only in the local authority pension schemes but in defined-benefit schemes around the land. We know the situation we are in. Because of quantitative easing, or largely because of quantitative easing, yields on Government gilts are low and will not give us the kind of return that we have been used to, so there is a real issue about where we will get the investment returns in future.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will give way in a moment but I want to finish the point. It is important, therefore, that we have the debate about infrastructure investment. There is an important opportunity, but that opportunity must be seen by local pension schemes as being about investing in their local economy. The Government have to think very carefully about that inter-relationship.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I agree with everything that he has said, and with the comments of one or two of my colleagues.
There is another issue to consider when we talk about the ability of local authorities to invest in various assets for pension schemes. We can have an ethical foreign policy but local authorities must be unethical in their investments, which is a contradiction. I am thinking particularly of cluster bombs and things like that. In the west midlands, a pension scheme might not want to invest in companies that manufacture cluster bombs but has to do so because the Government say so.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and he makes an interesting point. We must have the wider debate about sustainability and ethical investment. There are certainly very attractive funds that exist in the area of sustainability, corporate social responsibility and so on, and it is very important that local authorities are allowed to have the debate about what is in their members’ best interests. They must be able to satisfy them that they are acting in their interests. It is entirely legitimate for pension schemes to have a debate about what they consider to be ethical investments, and they should be allowed to pursue them provided that they can demonstrate that they are acting in the best interests of their members.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on opening this debate. Further to an earlier intervention, we can all see some benefit from the proposed pooling arrangements, but we must also be cognisant that there can be risks, or a concentration of risks. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there ought to be trade union representation on the governance structures for the pooling in order to stand up for members’ interests?
Very simply, yes, I agree. Stakeholders and trade unions are a very important part of the debate. We must also look at the training that is given to trustees in that regard, so that they can discharge their responsibilities fully, and indeed the important role that advisers play. In some senses, we have perhaps rushed these changes, rather than stood back and tried to get something on which I hope we can build consensus.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As chairman of the local government unions, I led negotiations on the local government pension scheme; I campaigned to defend the local government pension scheme; and I worked with the scheme, at both national and local level, on investment strategy. It is absolutely right, commensurate with what we always sought to do through the scheme, that we have ethical investment, that we encourage infrastructure investment and that we look at sensible pooling arrangements. However, the first obligation of a pension scheme is to its members, to deliver to those loyal, long-serving public servants the best possible retirement. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that it is not only illegitimate but potentially unlawful for the Government to seek to impose their will on 1 million workers and their pension scheme, and that the best thing to do would be to go back to the drawing board, sit down with the trade unions and negotiate a sensible way forward?
Again, I find myself in complete agreement. The hon. Gentleman is correct and there is an argument that what the UK Government have done is perhaps in contravention of European law. I will come to that point a little later.
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the fine way in which he has approached this important debate and got it going. This is an important question. In the 1960s, an ex-Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, forced through a report on the financial institutions, which revealed that over 70%—I think it was 74% at the time—of the FT share index was owned by pension funds. That shows how important this issue is.
To go back to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, there is a question about the value of gilts and bonds. I do not think it is just about that—it is also about the violation of the rights of individual pension-holders. The Government pay the money over in the first place, then take it back and say, “We’ll allow you to have this, but only if we decide how it’s spent”. That has got to be stopped.
Order. We are having a lot of interventions. This is a three-hour debate, so if people want to make long interventions, I would love to hear them give a speech instead. There is no need for long interventions, Sir Alan.
Thank you, Sir Edward. Again, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale), because, as I mentioned, the funds belong to the scheme-owners—those who are working in local authorities that are engaged in that way. It rather ill behoves the Government to seek to interfere in the governance of the funds if they are acting in the best interests of their members—that is the test. That is why it is important for the Government listen to the debate, reflect and perhaps come back with some new thinking.
The whole infrastructure issue is important. I think we all recognise that we have to build capacity in our economies. We have all heard the debate about being left behind. It is absolutely necessary that local authority pension funds in the north of England, the midlands and my own country of Scotland play their part. Each local authority area must make its own determination as to what is right and invest in local schemes—social housing, perhaps—for the benefit of the community. At the same time, they should invest for the benefit of the pension schemes. It is about democratic accountability and investment opportunities. It should not be too complicated.
I urge the Government carefully to consider what has been done in Ontario and Quebec. They have been able to build consensus because they have not had the same compulsion and the Government in Canada cannot use the big stick against local authorities.
I commend the Library on a first-class briefing. On the legal framework, it states:
“Although the rules are set nationally by the Secretary of State,”
“is administered at local level by ‘administering authorities’, which broadly correspond to county councils and London Boroughs. These administering authorities are responsible for managing scheme investments, within the statutory framework. The Local Government Association (LGA) explains that this means decisions are ‘taken by democratically elected local councillors working within the restraints of local authority budgets.’”
That local democratic accountability, which many right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned, is the nub of the matter.
The briefing continues:
“When making decisions on investment, the primary responsibilities of administering authorities are to deliver the returns needed to pay scheme members’ pensions, and to protect local taxpayers and employers from high pension costs. In this context, there have been questions about the extent to which investments can be made with other objectives in mind – for example, a desire to invest in infrastructure or avoid certain investments on ethical grounds. Legal advice published by the LGA in April 2014 said that the power of investment must be exercised for investment purposes and not for wider purposes. However, as long as this remained true, the precise choice of investment could be influenced by wider considerations.”
The briefing also states that the Department for Communities and Local Government has been considering how to “achieve economies of scale” and, as has been mentioned, pooling can lead to reduced costs and enhanced returns. The principle is fine and is to be lauded. However, it has become clear that the Government are going to use the stick approach as well as that of the carrot. If subtle inducement does not work, the Government could intervene by directing local authorities to invest in a certain way or by the Secretary of State exercising control. If we are to support local democracy throughout the United Kingdom, that cannot be right, and I can understand why local authorities might be alarmed.
The hon. Gentleman is totally right about how undemocratic the measure is. Is there not a double jeopardy as well? Should the Government not be mindful of the fact that if they direct a fund to behave in a particular way and the investment goes wrong, they themselves will be liable? Do they not have to remember Equitable Life?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I promised myself that I would not be too strident in the debate and not give the Government too much of a verbal kicking, but let us look at where we are on wider pensions policy and mark the Government’s report card because, frankly, it is not a good one. Let us take the issue of fairness for the women in the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign, and that of pensions freedom, on which just last week we saw a roll-back with the secondary annuity market being scrapped before it gets going. A systemic risk was identified by the previous Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, yet the Government have had nothing to say about their responsibilities. We can see the impact of the risk to pensioners, we all know what happened with Maxwell and recently we have had BHS—
Order. This is a very interesting debate on local government pensions and I know that Mr Blackford, who is a consummate parliamentary performer, will want to get straight back to the point, and away from Mr Maxwell, won’t he?
I am grateful for that advice, Sir Edward, and will move on. I was trying to put across the point that, regarding the Government interfering in local government pension schemes, their track record on pensions is not something I would see as commendable.
Unison has argued that investment decisions should be made by their funds and their members. I agree. Let us remember that the pension funds we are talking about are members’ funds. The Local Government Association has also said that there is even the risk of the regulations and the Secretary of State infringing European law on Government intervention in pension fund investment—a point that was made earlier. I find myself, not for the first time, on the side of European law and against the Government.
The Local Government Association has welcomed some of the changes, stating:
“Under the previous LGPS investment regulations there were express limits and thresholds on the assets that LGPS funds could invest in. The new framework moves the LPGS to a ‘prudent person’ approach as exists in the private sector. Under this approach outright limits and thresholds are replaced with a system that gives LGPS administrating authorities more flexibility and requires them to have their own policies on asset allocation, risk and diversification.”
I do not think anyone here would object to that but, having given local authorities that clear mandate, we need to see them investing under the conditions set for them and in the best interests of the members, without interference from Government.
On the Government reforms, the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association states:
“We agree with the Governments proposals for pooling and the need to ensure that fund are committed to delivering these pools. However, there is a risk that such broad powers, combined with the lack of an explicit fiduciary duty, could ultimately be used by a future government to direct what funds invest in, with limited regard on the impact to the payment of members benefits and the costs to employers and members.”
Is it not important that there is full transparency in respect of those costs so that everyone—scheme members and the public—can see precisely what is being charged to members?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that should be seen in the wider context of information that should be given to plan holders, including those in the state pension scheme. All potential pensioners should be given an A4 sheet detailing their entitlements, backed up by transparency about the charges for all the schemes invested in. There is more work to be done.
I ask a simple question: is it really the Government’s intention to be in a position in which they can be challenged regarding seeking to direct local authority pension schemes? The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association states that the Government ought to pause and reflect on their obligations and on the importance of local democracy and accountability. In their consultation document, the Government state:
“However, given the very large sums of public money at stake, we believe that it is entirely appropriate for the Secretary of State to be able to intervene where concerns have raised, having taken account of all available evidence.”
That is illuminating. As a number of us have said, we are talking about plan holders’ money. Yes, there must be regulation and oversight, but the Government are hardly a neutral participant in the process and they must think again and learn from best practice elsewhere.
Earlier this year, new legislation came into force in Quebec, which has been framed as a measure that potentially ensures that costly defined-benefit plans are sustainable in the long run. We should consider having that here. Under the legislation, the province no longer requires defined-benefit plans to fund themselves based on short-term assumptions about their own finances and market volatility. Instead, they need to fund themselves based only on long-term, less conservative assumptions. The law, which aims to reduce contribution volatility for employers and thus make defined-benefit plans more sustainable, is the first of its kind in Canada. The changes will be particularly supportive when it comes to longer-term infrastructure investment. That is the kind of debate that we ought to have in this country.
The e-petition motion, and the changes to the governance of pension schemes, relate solely to England and Wales, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that there is active engagement on the topic of local authority investment in infrastructure in Scotland, where responsibility is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The SNP-led Scottish Government are committed to changing pension scheme regulations to ensure that they are not a barrier to local government pension schemes investing in infrastructure, and they are working with the scheme advisory board to achieve that. We in Scotland realise that there needs to be more of a balance between encouraging that approach and paying due regard to the responsibility of scheme managers to invest pension fund moneys in accordance with the scheme managers’ fiduciary duty. The Scottish Government are committed to achieving that delicate balance.
The discussion of pension scheme investment takes place in a wider context, which includes activities centred on the cities and a major programme of infrastructure investment. Cities and their regions are key drivers of our economy and the Scottish Government are committed to working with all our cities to unlock investment, whether individually, collectively through a city deal, through one of the Scottish Government’s devolved initiatives to stimulate growth and deliver infrastructure investment, or through a combination of all those measures.
It seems to me that it is not only about the democratic right of local authorities to pursue their choices, but also, exactly as the hon. Gentleman is saying, about giving them the kind of fiscal skills that can only help in the furtherance of their city deals. For the Government to try to quash both those objectives seems wholly perverse.
I again find myself wholly in agreement with a Member. I am not trying to lecture the Chamber on the things we are getting right in Scotland, but the Government in London could benefit from the kind of collaborative thinking we have developed, which is very much in line with what the hon. Gentleman said.
The fiduciary duty placed on local government pension schemes to act in the interests of the beneficiaries of the funds has to be the underlying principle of investment strategies and has to govern investment decisions. The responsible investment of pension funds must always be prioritised over unstable and risky investment. It is up to local authorities to ensure that they invest the funds to achieve the best outcomes for employees, trustees and sustainable growth. I stress that it is for the local authorities to determine that, and not for central Government to determine for them.
There have been some excellent examples in Scotland of sustainable investment in local housing projects delivering much needed long-term infrastructure that benefits ordinary people. For example, the Falkirk local government pension scheme fund awarded fund manager Hearthstone Investments £30 million to invest in social and affordable housing in Scotland. More than 300 affordable homes are expected to be delivered, with the Scottish Government providing an initial investment of more than £6 million towards 126 social homes in Falkirk and Clackmannanshire. That is the kind of collaborative work that we need across the United Kingdom.
Rather than droning on, I will wind up at this point. On the basis of the consultation that the Government have seen and on the basis of what I expect the Minister will hear this afternoon, I ask that they go back and think again. They need to try to get back to a position of consensus and collaboration with local authority pension schemes in England and Wales.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on the way he has presented his arguments and on giving us the opportunity to debate this issue.
I will be brief. I had a letter from a constituent—it was an email, to be more precise. She raised three strong points which I intend to make today. Her first point was that she did not consider the Government’s proposals ethical. I will explain why she said that in a moment. Her second point, which has already been made by the hon. Gentleman and others, was that the proposals are undemocratic. Finally, she questioned the integrity of the consultation process that the Government carried out. I will take each of those points in turn.
First, on the ethical considerations, my constituent said:
“The regulations unfairly bar local authorities from deciding not to invest in the arms trade and seem to be written to dissuade them from ending investment in companies complicit in violations of human rights and international law. Local authorities must be allowed to make investment decisions that reflect the values of their pension holders and wider communities. The new regulations undermine their ability to do so.”
On the question of the democracy of the proposals, my constituent said:
“It is absolutely anti-democratic to give the central government ‘power of intervention’ to prevent local authorities from divesting from some companies, and mandating them to invest in others against their will. This is not government money, but money belonging to pension holders who should retain the right to decide on how their money is invested. Government assurances that it will reserve the power for exceptional circumstances are insufficient in protecting the principle and process of democracy and the rights of pension holders.”
Finally, on the question of the integrity of the consultation process, my constituent said:
“In government consultation on the regulations, over 23,000 individuals and hundreds of trade unions rejected the proposal. That’s over 98% of the respondents. While the consultation closed in February, the results were only published seven months later, after the new guidance and regulations were made official. This shows an utter disdain for the principle of consultation and public input.”
Taken together, those three points provide a fairly damning critique of what has taken place. In light of that, I hope that the Government will reconsider their proposals. I should conclude by apologising; I cannot stay for the whole debate, as I have other responsibilities outside of Westminster Hall. This debate is on a serious issue, and I hope the Government take it seriously.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) in congratulating the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on the way he introduced the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I will concentrate on three areas: local decision making; scrutiny of Government proposals; and how the regulations and the guidance attached to them relate to broader UK policy.
As other Members have said, local decision making comes down to whether pension fund scheme members and local authorities are allowed their say in how pensions are invested, rather than simply being overruled by Government. It is also about the ability of those responsible for public institutions to exercise the judgments they are appointed to exercise within the law. In the case of local authorities, that involves accountability not only to their electorates, but to scheme members. In their role as pension trustees, they have to be able to make judgments in line with their fiduciary duties. Funds must be invested in the best interest of their members, as European directives lay out, and I hope that will not change, although I find it difficult to understand how the regulations are compatible with those directives.
If Ministers are serious about being committed to more local decision-making and giving powers back to local areas, it follows that investment decisions should be made by local authorities, fund trustees and members, not by a Secretary of State with a broadened set of powers of intervention. That is where concerns arise, however, along with concerns about the degree of scrutiny Parliament is being allowed over the issue. That is pretty alarming given the negative responses received as part of the consultation. Indeed, today’s debate is only happening at all because of a public petition being acted upon and allowed to happen by Members of this House. It is not a result of Government initiative or Government action.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points. Does he agree that it is rather shameful that the measure was introduced through a statutory instrument, rather than with a debate in the House of Commons in which all Members could properly participate?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I hope it is not lost in the debate. The Minister will respond to the debate, and I hope he will address that point specifically when he winds up, although I am afraid that Ministers have form here. It seems that the changes—or at least some of them, and some of what is written in the regulations and the guidance attached—appear to be allied to new rules on public procurement that were announced in February without any parliamentary scrutiny up to that point.
The most we knew about either of those changes was a highly partisan press release issued at the Conservative party conference in October 2015. Indeed, the formal announcement from the Government on the local government procurement changes did not even happen in this country. Instead, it happened at a joint press conference by the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who was then at the Cabinet Office, and the Prime Minister of Israel. It took successive applications for a Westminster Hall debate to enable us to find out what those regulations meant. The ministerial reply to that debate left a number of questions unanswered, and it took more correspondence back and forth before a Cabinet Office letter to me on 4 May finally clarified that some of the actual changes being proposed were a lot less dramatic than the rhetoric we had witnessed in the Conservative party press release and the Minister’s joint press conference.
On the changes in local authority pensions regulations, will the Minister clarify what is rhetoric and what is reality when it comes to guidance and consultation in relation to administering authorities preparing and maintaining investment strategy statements under regulation 7 of the Local Government Pension Scheme (Management and Investment of Funds) Regulations 2016? I particularly want to ask about paragraphs 3.7 and 3.8 of the consultation. Paragraph 3.7 stated:
“The Secretary of State has made clear that using pensions and procurement policies to pursue boycotts, divestments and sanctions against foreign nations and the UK defence industry are inappropriate, other than where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the Government.”
Paragraph 3.8 states that such guidance is intended to make it clear that the administering authority,
“should not pursue policies which run contrary to UK foreign policy.”
So will the Minister confirm that his reference to,
“boycotts, divestments and sanctions”
in no way overrides UK Government policy and guidance on illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, nor fetters administering authorities’ ability to follow that broader policy. I ask because the UK Government have a long-standing and clear foreign policy position that is bipartisan in recognising the illegality of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Government’s current guidance, issued to UK businesses, does not encourage trade or financial involvement with the settlements. A recent statement by all EU member states “unequivocally and explicitly” makes the distinction between Israel and all territories occupied by Israel since 1967.
Secondly, will the Minister confirm that neither the regulations he has introduced nor the guidance that accompanies them in any way override UK Government policy and guidance on illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories? Will he confirm that they do not fetter administering authorities’ ability to follow such guidance in relation to local authorities’ overarching commitment not only in regard to the Palestinian territories, but in implementing the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights? I want to be clear that when paragraph 3.8 of the guidance attached to the regulations says that administering authorities should not pursue investment policies that
“run contrary to UK foreign policy”
it in no way undermines or overrides the overarching commitment in the UK’s own 2013 action plan for implementing the UN guiding principles on human rights and business, which state that the UK Government,
“are committed to ensuring that in UK Government procurement human rights related matters are reflected appropriately when purchasing goods, works and services. Under the public procurement rules public bodies may exclude tenderers from bidding for a contract opportunity in certain circumstances, including where there is information showing grave misconduct by a company in the course of its business or profession. Such misconduct might arise...where there are breaches of human rights.”
In his reply to me of 4 May this year, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk, on behalf of the Cabinet Office, made it clear that public procurement policies were in no way intended to undermine the long-standing UK policy that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law. He also said,
“There are flexibilities to enable individual authorities to exclude suppliers that are corrupt, guilty of misconduct, in breach of various international laws and so on”.
Will the Minister confirm that the various international laws referred to would include the Geneva conventions?
The implications go beyond any question about Palestine or Israel or even the middle east as a whole. There are implications for the whole gamut of ethical investment policies and for the ability of a local authority pension fund to decide not to invest in tobacco or in the activities of companies that are felt to be environmentally unsustainable. The implications go wide indeed. In this context I want to draw the House’s attention to the Government’s response to the consultation on today’s regulations, which states:
“Provided that the guidance to be published under draft Regulation 7(1) is complied with, there is nothing in draft regulation 7(2)(e) to prevent an administering authority from taking any non-financial consideration into account provided that it is made in the best long term interests of scheme beneficiaries, and does not represent any significant risk to the health of the fund.”
When the right hon. Member for West Suffolk replied to me in relation to the procurement issue, he said that all such decisions have to be made on a case by case basis, which has of course always been the situation; there is nothing new there. However, will the Minister today clarify that all the assurances I was given in relation to local government procurement, extracted from the Government in the letter of 4 May sent by the right hon. Gentleman, also apply in respect of the 2016 local government pension scheme regulations and guidance notes that we are debating today?
When I wrote to the right hon. Member for West Suffolk during his time at the Cabinet Office, even though the pensions aspect of the announcement was a Department for Communities and Local Government responsibility, I tempted him to comment on the new management and investment regulations for local authorities’ pension funds, as well as the public procurement matters that were within his area of responsibility, and I am pleased to say that he did so. In his letter to me of 4 May, he said that the changes we are debating today,
“Increase rather than decrease the potential for local discretion in decision-making”.
I am pleased to hear that. I have difficulty relating it to what is in the guidance notes and regulations, but I hope he is right about that, and I hope that any interpretations of the regulations will reflect that statement that was made on the record by a Cabinet Minister. I hope the Minister today will confirm that statement in relation to the concerns that I and others have raised today and will no doubt raise during the debate.
I have asked the Minister specific questions about specific parts of the regulations and guidance notes and about the correspondence that I have had with the Government on this matter. I am sure he has been fully briefed and will be able to give full answers to all the questions. If there are areas where he cannot give clear answers, I hope he will respond to all Members in writing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Let me start by referring back to my earlier intervention. As national secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, I was chair of the trade union side that conducted a series of negotiations on the local government pension scheme, and I worked very closely with the local government pension scheme at a national level on a range of the issues that have been referred to in this debate.
Who are the people we are talking about? They are the care workers who look after the vulnerable, the disabled and the elderly. They are the Karens, whom I met at Osborne nursery school but two weekends ago—outstanding education assistants who help kids get the best possible start in life. They are the dustmen, the refuse collectors and the people who go out and keep our streets clean—my uncle Mick, who lived with me until he sadly died, was a street cleaner. They are social workers who take care of, among others, looked-after children who badly need the support that social services and children’s services can deliver.
The millions who depend upon the local government pension scheme, which is fundamentally a good scheme, include not just those who are directly employed but those such as bus workers, who were originally directly employed by local government bus companies and have now been transferred but are still in the local government pension scheme. There are tens of thousands of contractors’ employees who enjoy what is called admitted body status. I know that because I negotiated admitted body status to ensure that, if those workers are transferred to the private sector, they remain in the local government pension scheme. The pension scheme is a good one. It is fundamentally one of the most democratic schemes in the country. I have often argued over the years that the voice of workers should be heard louder in relation to some of the local administrations of the pension scheme.
I have been personally involved not just in the negotiations. I have, for example, addressed two conferences for the scheme at national level on the issues of collaboration to ensure ethical investment, which is absolutely a legitimate concern, and infrastructure investment. The then national chair of the local government pension scheme, Kieran Quinn, said, “Why are we investing in light transport in Taiwan when we should be investing more in developing infrastructure here in Britain?” Of course, that is absolutely right.
The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) referred to housing. I remember opening a housing development with the leader of Manchester City Council, where local government pension scheme investment was key to building hundreds of affordable homes. The objectives of having an ethical approach and greater investment in infrastructure are absolutely legitimate—so, too, is the move towards pooling. We have got to get it right, but in my time we used to argue for pooling and greater collaboration to make more effective investments.
What is fundamentally wrong about the proposal is that the Government are elbowing to one side the world of local government and telling millions of pensioners how their pensions might best be delivered.
Surely, it is legitimate for a political party in a local authority administration to seek from the electorate a mandate on how it will invest in its pension funds. That is what the Government are interfering with.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right. He has a background in Unison—one of the major local government unions. It is simply wrong for Whitehall to tell millions of pensioners and town halls what they should do in the future. It is also potentially unlawful, and a very strong case was set out earlier to that effect.
We have shared objectives: a greater ethical approach, infrastructure investment and pooling. Why do the Government have to continue to blunder down this path? There was an extraordinary response to the consultative process, and people overwhelmingly said, “No, no!” The Government should now, even at this stage, listen and get back into discussions with the scheme itself and the local government unions.
How do the Government square their approach over the local government pension scheme with two stated public policy objectives? The first is localism. I remember leading for the Labour party in the endless negotiations when the Localism Bill was going through Parliament in 2011. Power to the people? This is more Leninism than localism.
The second objective is this. The Government have had a damascene conversion. Not since Saul fell off his horse on the road to Tarsus have a Government made such a change. Historically the enemy of working people, they are now posing as the friend of working people—the champion of working people—but what they intend to do is to say to millions of working people, “No matter what you think, no matter what your concerns are, we are going to tell you how your pension scheme should be invested in the future.” That simply cannot be right.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for securing this debate, and I thank hon. Members who have articulated their opinions clearly on this issue.
We have heard about a variety of interesting options for and aspects of the upcoming changes, but the nub of the matter is that 5 million people rely on the local government pension scheme. Like other people who have pensions, they rely on their pension trustees—the pension boards—to invest their funds in their best interests. To me, that is a simple principle—I am sure everybody can understand it—so why has it taken more than 100,000 people to sign a petition on something so obvious? It is obvious to everyone that local government means local. Pension schemes belong to those people; they have paid in, so they should have the right to say how that money is invested—no more and no less.
Despite that, 98% of respondents to the Government’s consultation rejected the proposals. The Government have ridden roughshod over those views. They tabled in Parliament a statutory instrument that will become law on 1 November. It comprises a new set of local government investment regulations under which the Government can instruct local government pension scheme administrators on how to invest their money. With no debate in the House to help to influence the measure and warn of any potential pitfalls, the pensions of 5 million scheme members, worth £178 billion—it is the fourth-largest pot in the world—will be dictated to by the Government.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) made clear, this is about people’s pensions and people’s lives. This is about school janitors and cleaners.
It is also about deferred pay for precisely the reason the shadow Minister outlined. Local government employees pay in, unlike other public sector pension fund members. A local government worker’s pension is deferred pay.
I agree entirely. This is an appalling misuse of power, and contrary to the best interests of scheme members, who want to ensure that their pensions are invested in the way they want, not the way the Government wants. It also flies in the face of European law. Article 18 of the directive on institutions for occupational retirement provision—hon. Members have already covered this point—clearly states that pension funds must invest
“in the best interests of members”,
“Member States shall not require institutions to invest in particular categories of assets.”
We are in the mid-chaos of Brexit, but article 50 has yet to be triggered and we are still working under European Union directives, so we are breaking that law.
As usual, the Government are using sledgehammer to crack a nut, and we have spoken about the back-door policy of avoiding councils that have, for ethical reasons, concerns about investment in some areas. The guidance attached to the regulations states that
“using pension policies to pursue boycotts, divestment and sanctions against foreign nations and UK defence industries are inappropriate, other than where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the Government.”
In summary, therefore, administering authorities should not pursue policies that are contrary to UK foreign or defence policy. There is, however, little or no evidence that the local government pension scheme has ever undertaken investment decisions in that way, and the Government should not be imposing its foreign and defence policies to the detriment of LGPS pensioners.
The Government need to listen for a change. They need to listen to the 105,000 people who signed the e-petition, to the Local Government Association, to the public sector unions representing their members and to the Law Commission, which commented on the LGPS investment regulations for England and Wales:
“We think two aspects of the LGPS Regulations could usefully be reviewed. First, in practice administering authorities consider themselves to be quasi-trustees, acting in the best interests of their members. We think that the same rules which apply to pension fund trustees in taking account of wider or non-financial factors will also be taken to apply to LGPS administering authorities. There is an argument that the IORP Directive requires this. However, we think that uncertainty on this point is undesirable and that the matter should be put beyond doubt. It would be helpful if the LGPS Investment Regulations made it clear that administering authorities must act in the best interests of pension scheme members.”
We cannot stress strongly enough that the authorities must act in the interests of members.
Why are the Government ignoring those voices? Why have the Government refused to listen? Why did they even bother to carry out a consultation, if they then ignore 98% of the results? Why are the Government not looking at everything again carefully? I fully support pooling arrangements; they are great if they get the best for the scheme members. The regulations should not be a way for the Government to borrow on the back of pensioners, or to dictate where and where not the pension fund may be invested.
Why have the Government failed to take the arrangements through the House of Commons? Because they know they are wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) spoke about localism. He was absolutely right: this is the reverse of localism; it is dictatorship. The Government have no right to interfere in people’s pensions. The consultation went out and the Government, I am quite sure, felt that their proposal was a good idea, but the people who own the fund have said no. I beg the Government to listen and to put a hold on their scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for introducing this debate about investments made under the local government pension scheme in England and Wales. It provides me with the opportunity to address the significant misconceptions about Government policy that have arisen as a result of briefing from trade unions and other bodies.
Judging from the debate today, before I go on to things that people might not agree with, I think everyone agrees that the scheme members of the pension funds are the most important group involved. I want to reassure those scheme members that their pensions are certainly not at risk and that we are giving local authorities more and not less control over investments.
Before I get into the detail of the policy, I should make it clear that the LGPS is a defined-benefit scheme, in which benefits are guaranteed by statute and are not directly affected by the investment performance of individual funds. Scheme members in different local funds, each with different asset allocations and funding strategies, receive the same level of benefits based on a salary and length of scheme membership.
Investment decisions in the LGPS are not, therefore, a “gamble” with scheme members’ pension rights. It is clearly the case, however, that local administering authorities should seek to maximise the returns on investments in order to limit the risk to the town hall that pensions or otherwise might pose to local council tax payers and local services. We have made it clear repeatedly that investment decisions must be taken in the best interests of scheme members and taxpayers.
The petition states that the Government might
“gamble away members’ money on infrastructure projects”,
but I make no apologies for the fact that we have been clear that authorities should be ambitious in developing their proposals on infrastructure investment. Investment in infrastructure is increasingly seen as a suitable option for larger pension funds with long-term liabilities.
Figures published by the LGPS advisory board in 2013 showed that only £550 million, or 0.3% of the scheme’s total assets of £180 billion, were invested at that time in infrastructure. That falls some way behind other large pension funds that have elected to invest 10% to 15% in the area. It is widely recognised that infrastructure investment is good not only for investors, but for the global economy. Indeed, investing in large-scale infrastructure projects can offer a useful match with the long-term liabilities held by pension funds.
Other countries are well ahead of us in progressive thinking and it is time for the UK to step up to the challenge. In the existing investment environment, there is also even greater pressure to reduce costs and maintain or improve performance. Our work with the LGPS funds to pool their investments will save up to £300 million a year over time, thus benefiting scheme members and taxpayers alike. The larger scale of the pools will also open up new investment opportunities, such as large infrastructure projects. I am grateful for the hard work put in by elected members and officers in making pooling begin to happen. I will meet each pool over the coming weeks to discuss their plans and set out our expectations.
Nevertheless, I have been absolutely clear throughout that investment decisions are for administering authorities and that that will remain the case. There is no question, nor has there ever been, of the Government directing funds to invest in a particular way—for example, in infrastructure projects. The point about directive 41/2003 is therefore not relevant.
I find myself in agreement with much of what the Minister is saying. There is a desire for greater infrastructure investment, but the issue is getting the architecture right. If he takes away the risk of Government interference with the LGPS, he might get to a position that we could all support, but he must listen to the legitimate voices of concern.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention but, as I said at the outset, we are giving local authorities more and not less control over their investments.
Will the Minister explain what happens if an LGPS fund cannot pay its pensions?
As I said earlier, the LGPS is a defined-benefit scheme, so the benefits to the pension fund participants are protected by statute. I do not think that is an issue for the people with investment in the funds. As I will explain, there is an extremely important point about how pension funds are able to invest and the additional freedom that we have provided in that respect.
I want to underline that I respect and understand the strength of feeling shown by many of the respondents to our consultation on the new LGPS investment regulations and the people who signed the petition. The proper conduct of pensions and pension investments is of deep concern to us all, as it should be. A key concern expressed by respondents to the consultation was about the power in those regulations under which the Secretary of State could, after proper consultation, intervene in the investment activities of an administering authority. It may be helpful and, I hope, reassuring if I set out the reasons that we have taken that power.
Historically, the LGPS investment regulations and the framework that they impose have sought to constrain investment decisions to minimise risk and protect the interests of scheme beneficiaries and taxpayers. More recently, however, those regulations have fallen below the standards in Europe and the private sector in the UK. Under the new investment regulations, administering authorities will be significantly more responsible and accountable for their investment decisions. Provided that authorities act reasonably within the framework provided by the regulations and guidance, they will no longer be constrained by prescription from the centre about how their assets are invested. For example, we have removed limits on the proportion of assets that may be invested in particular ways. The new regulations therefore provide authorities with much more freedom over how they invest LGPS funds and bring that scheme broadly into line with private sector schemes in that respect, and represent a landmark policy shift.
The power of intervention has been included in the new regulations as a backstop in the rare circumstances in which it may be necessary to protect the around £200 billion of assets and 5 million members of the local government pension scheme. The regulations include several safeguards to ensure that that power is used appropriately and proportionately, including full consultation with the relevant authority. The Government’s response to the consultation made it clear that that power would be used only on clear evidence that an authority was failing to act in accordance with the regulations or guidance.
I want to try to be helpful. There is awful lot of concern about the power that the Government have given themselves to intervene. We understand the statutory obligations under these local authority schemes, but as a way out of that, did the Government consider giving that power not to themselves but to the Pensions Regulator?
A lot has been made of the fact that these measures are being made by statutory instrument. The Public Service Pensions Act 2013 gives Ministers broad powers over the running of pension funds. That Act was scrutinised at significant length in the House. Considering the suite of powers that Ministers are given by that Act and taking into account the views of organisations such as the local government pensions scheme advisory board, the new regulations do not go anywhere near as far as they could have. I know from meeting that board that several people from administering authorities and trade unions are represented on it, and I discussed this issue with them at some length.
To pick up a few other points, the new investment regulations and guidance allow authorities to take into account non-financial factors, such as social, environmental and corporate governance considerations, when making investment decisions. However, authorities must take proper advice, act lawfully and take decisions that are in the best interests of scheme members and taxpayers. They must also act in a way that is consistent with UK foreign and defence policy.
The guidance is clear that administering authorities should not use pension policies to pursue boycotts, divestments or sanctions, except where formal legal sanctions exist and embargoes or restrictions have been put in place by the UK Government, where policy responsibility for such matters lies. We have taken the same view in our guidance on boycotts in the context of public sector procurement, which in turn is based firmly on the position in international law.
The Minister ran together three things: boycotts, divestments and sanctions. Boycotts tend to be a consumer thing. Sanctions tend to be a Government thing. The issue relevant to this debate is divestment. Paragraph 3.7 of the consultation document says that
“boycotts, divestments and sanctions against foreign nations and the UK defence industry are inappropriate”.
Will he clarify that action to divest pension funds from a company involved with Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories would not fall foul of that so long as it was done on a case-by-case basis?
I will address more of the hon. Gentleman’s points later in my comments, but I can clarify that any such divestment must be in line with the policy of the UK Government.
The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber mentioned on a number of occasions the situation in Canada. We are aware that public service pension schemes in Canada have been merged, based on the fact that they are now important global investors. The Ontario teachers’ pension scheme seems to be regularly wheeled out as an example. There are several Members here from the west midlands who will know Birmingham airport well, and I am aware that the Ontario teachers’ pension fund has a significant investment in that airport. We see in the situation in Canada one of our drivers for pooling the LGPS funds, along with the wider need to save costs, not in terms of a direct cost saving to the Government but one that will be put back into those pension funds for the benefit of members.
I agree entirely that transparency of pension investments is important, so that all concerned can see where pension fund cash is being spent on fees and why. My Department is working closely with the scheme advisory board and others to ensure that information is clear in relation to fees charged to pension funds.
I assure hon. Members that there is an opportunity for trade union representation on pools. That is a matter for the individual pools themselves and depends on their governance arrangements, but the individual local authority members that support each scheme will have the right to be part of setting up those pooling governance arrangements, and it will therefore be their decision on whether union representatives are on the pools.
There have been extremely good examples of investment in local housing in England, as well as in Scotland, which the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber mentioned. There is a good example in Greater Manchester, where funds have been used from the Greater Manchester pension scheme. As I said, a relatively small amount of funding has gone into that type of investment hitherto, and we want to encourage pension funds and pools to increase such investment.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) mentioned the significant correspondence he had had with my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock). Without seeing that correspondence, it is difficult for me to answer some of his questions directly, but I will undertake to look at that correspondence and come back to him with a written response.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned overseas business risk guidance issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That guidance does apply to local government pension funds, but it is important to be clear that the Government are committed to promoting trade links and business ties with Israel and therefore the guidance strongly opposes boycotts.
Just for clarity, I mentioned nothing about trade with Israel. I mentioned overseas business risk and the FCO guidance relating to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. If the Minister wishes, I can quote from that guidance, but I am sure he knows what I am referring to. It is nothing to do with Israel; it is to do with illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is covered in the guidance, and I will write to him at further length on that point.
The hon. Gentleman asked for clarification on whether local government procurement guidance applies to the LGPS. Our guidance on pension scheme investments is entirely of the same framework as the guidance issued by the Cabinet Office on public procurement. Both operate within the wider framework of national and international law.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned tobacco. It is our position, as is clear from our response to the consultation on investment, that decisions on matters such as whether to invest in tobacco are for individual pension funds provided that they comply with the broad principles in our guidance.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) mentioned localism. Our reforms are entirely consistent with localism. We have removed the petty, arbitrary caps on different types of investments put in place by the Opposition some years ago and given local authorities real freedom to decide how they invest their pension funds.
In summary, I reassure the House that investment decisions will remain for administering authorities. The Government are challenging local authorities to be independent and ambitious, subject to local democratic control and appropriate safeguards. We have no intention whatever of gambling with money that has been set aside to pay pensions.
I am a former trustee of a pensions scheme, and it was made clear to me on repeated occasions that the legal duties and responsibilities fell to those people around the table who were privy to all the investment information as well as the contributors to the scheme. My overriding question about the regulations and the Government’s involvement in the LGPS scheme, as opposed to private schemes over which they have no direct responsibility or involvement and do not interfere, is whether LGPS trustees’ rights and responsibilities are being eroded or undermined in any way. Does that set a precedent? That would concern me.
I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that the changes are in no way intended to diminish the role of individual pension funds or the people who represent members. [Interruption.] She is commenting from a sedentary position, but we will have to agree to disagree on that point, bearing in mind what I have said previously.
Apparently, you can wind up, Mr Blackford. We would not want to miss your dulcet tones.
Thank you, Sir Edward; that is very kind of you. I thank those who signed the petition and brought us here today. I think we all agree that the debate is important. There are a couple of important underlying factors, the most important of which is that there has to be local democracy and accountability.
The Opposition have spoken enthusiastically about the benefits of pooling and of local authority pension schemes investing in infrastructure on a global basis and locally within our economies, so we support the direction of travel. However, the Minister still has not really addressed—I would go as far as to say he has ignored it—what is written in the regulations, and he and the Government must reflect on that power of interference. I have tried to give them a way out, because there is a logical question: why do the Government want the powers of interference over local authority pension schemes? There is no logic for that situation.
Perhaps the Government need to go back and think, in the days that remain until those regulations come into force on 1 November, about the role that the Pensions Regulator may play. The Government need to get out of the situation and get around the table with the local authorities and the LGPS to agree that there is a fantastic opportunity for pension schemes to invest in infrastructure. They have to do that by taking away the threat of interference.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for the Government to think again. Does he agree that it would be absolutely extraordinary, having had a consultative process in which 98% of respondents objected to the Government’s proposals, for the Government to say, “We know it’s your pension and we know that 98% have said no, but we intend to go ahead regardless.”?
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. He spoke about Leninism; it is Big Brother knows best. I hope, at this late stage, that the Government reflect, so that we can get to a situation where we all support, in broad terms, what they are doing, but we can only do so with a proper governance model.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 125475 relating to the Local Government Pension Scheme.
Monday 24 October 2016
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Local Government Pension Scheme