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Civil Nuclear Constabulary: Pensions

Volume 655: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the pensions of Civil Nuclear Constabulary officers.

This is an opportunity to set out the case for the Civil Nuclear Constabulary’s pension age to be set at 60. That is not just a common-sense position but an urgent issue of national security. I am sure we can all agree that the effectiveness of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary is essential for maintaining the UK’s nuclear security.

The job with which the CNC is charged must be clearly understood as part of any discussion about the retirement age of its officers. In partnership with the civil nuclear industry, national security agencies and regulatory bodies, the CNC deters any attacker whose intent is the theft or sabotage of nuclear material, whether static or in transit. It defends such material and will recover it should it be seized. Such dangerous work means that all CNC officers are heavily armed and are required to meet demanding levels of physical fitness. In addition, they are employed as armed officers alongside other UK armed police, as we have seen in recent operations following terror attacks. They play a crucial role in keeping us—the public—safe, and theirs is one of the most dangerous professions to enter.

The prospect of a retirement age of 67, rising to 68, is causing real concern to CNC officers. The chief constable of the CNC has warned that the change to the retirement age would render the service “unsustainable” and is undoubtedly creating “insurmountable” difficulties for CNC officers and the mission they seek to fulfil. Indeed, that unrealistic retirement age is already damaging recruitment. Police Oracle reports that turnover among CNC personnel has deteriorated, rising to 12%. The Civil Nuclear Police Federation says that the force is 142 authorised firearms officers under strength and has seen 79 unscheduled leavers since April 2018, with 32 signalling their intention to quit recently and recruitment numbers decreasing by half. Alarmingly, one in every eight CNC officers is leaving for another force or heading for civvy street.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that the CNC’s size means that if an officer were injured or unable to carry the equipment it would be practically impossible, or certainly very difficult, to redeploy that officer within the force? That has to be considered as a factor in arguing that the default pension age should be 60.

Absolutely. That is a very important point. When any of these officers suffers an injury in the line of duty, the service has a duty of care to look after them until they are fit to return to duty. They will not necessarily be on sick leave the whole time, but it is difficult to redeploy them because of the nature of the work they undertake.

It is not difficult to see why the number of CNC officers has been eroding. CNC officers have been categorised as public sector workers for the purpose of their pension, meaning that full benefits kick in only at age 67 or 68, whereas conventional Home Office police officers are able to retire at 60. Does the Minister think that disparity fair, given that CNC officers are expected to carry five different weapons and 30 kg of heavy equipment at the age of 65-plus, as they are charged with protecting UK nuclear assets and act as a vital armed reserve force? If these officers’ retirement age is not given parity with the rest of the police service, there can be little doubt that it will continue to damage the recruitment and retention of CNC officers.

I congratulate the hon. Lady from the bottom of my heart on bringing this debate forward. Although I represent the far north of Scotland, this issue is every bit as big to my constituents who serve in the force at Dounreay. I recognise the contribution they make, which she outlined, in assisting Police Scotland in its endeavours. Surely, the loss of skills as people leave the force represents a misuse of money. A lot of money is spent training these officers up, so it seems to me that public money is poured down the drain if they leave altogether and go to civvy street.

Absolutely. That is a very important point, which I need not add to. I am sure the Minister is listening. That loss of skills is extremely concerning.

The damage to the recruitment and retention of CNC officers can only compromise, perhaps dangerously, the effectiveness of the force, and it could have extremely serious consequences for public safety. In addition, if we expect such exacting standards of CNC officers, while demanding that they wait until 68 to retire, of course there will be a temptation for ageing officers who know their job could be under threat to mask health conditions that may undermine their performance.

We all know that most public sector workers are now expected to work for longer. However, there are exceptions for certain classes of worker, and it seems obvious that CNC officers should be included in those exceptions. Perhaps the Minister can explain why conventional police officers will continue to retire at 60 but CNC officers will not. What is the logic for that? Despite that fact, CNC officers must meet much higher standards of physical fitness to keep their jobs. Conventional police officers perform firearms duties as an optional part of their duties and can relinquish them as they get older. Every single CNC officer is required to be fully trained in firearms, and they cannot relinquish firearms duties as they get older; they are an inherent part of their duties. In addition, the requirement for CNC officers to retain a very high standard of fitness until the age of 67 or 68 discriminates against women, since only an elite standard of fitness is expected to be sufficient for those aged over 60 to continue their duties.

The vast majority of public servants will be able to draw down a full pension. Should a public service employee choose to retire early, they will have 6% of their pension deducted for each year they retire early. The problem for CNC officers is that they are not choosing to retire early; they are being forced out because of physical inability to maintain obligatory standards of physical fitness and weaponry skills. CNC officers are likely to have their careers terminated as they approach the higher retirement age, and they will see their pensions reduced, perhaps by up to 25% to 30%, as a result. That considerable financial penalty is proving a major career disincentive. In such a situation, how can the CNC stem the decline in recruitment and retention?

I hope the Minister does not respond by telling us that we are all living longer and that keeping the CNC retirement age at 60 would set a dangerous precedent. The CNC is asking only for the same provisions that are in place for conventional Home Office police officers.

Let us turn our attention to costs. Perhaps the Minister will find it reassuring to learn that the CNC has done its own cost modelling, which shows that the gross cost of a retirement age of 60 versus the current plans would be only £4.4 million per year from 2023 to 2030 and £5.2 million a year in the long run. In the short run, those costs would be more than offset by extra case management costs, early retirement and compensation costs, so keeping the retirement age at 60 would produce a net saving of £4.3 million a year. In the long run, once compensation costs were paid, the net saving would be around £1.9 million per year.

Make no mistake, the Civil Nuclear Police Federation has accepted the potential for increased employee contributions to cover increases in costs. That means there is no real financial obstacle to correcting the unfairness between police services created by the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 and securing the UK’s nuclear safety.

I say to the Minister that increasingly this fine service has been rendered ineffective, due to the dithering and delay from his Government’s unwillingness to resolve the issue.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that with the addition of the £40 million CNC training facility at Sellafield, where we have the biggest CNC employment base, and with the nuclear future we are looking forward to, it is more important than ever that we ensure we have a CNC fit for the future?

Absolutely. I applaud the new training facility that the hon. Lady mentions, but I am sure that many CNC officers would see an irony in investing in training when there is a serious recruitment and retention crisis. There has to be more joined-up thinking.

We know that potential recruits are looking elsewhere and serving officers are voting with their feet. If the UK Government are not willing to listen to CNC officers and continue to deny the truth that everyone in this Chamber can see, perhaps the Minister will explain why his Government have set a pension age for this service which he and they know full well cannot be realistically reached by those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. Does he accept that if this service continues to be eroded as it has been in recent years—the Government were warned that it would be three years ago and the truth of that is becoming clearer every single day—it will be for his Government to explain its decisions if there is a situation where nuclear security in the UK is compromised? The service will continue to erode unless action is taken.

As this service is eroded, every single CNC officer’s job becomes more unsafe and more dangerous. As the Minister’s Government dither and delay, the welfare, wellbeing and morale of our 1,250 CNC officers is being undermined. That is simply unacceptable. In today’s context, nobody needs to be reminded of the increased importance of the role these officers play in keeping us safe.

CNC officers do not want the Minister to stand up and pay them compliments about their bravery and the value of their work. They do not want platitudes; they want action, commitment and parity with conventional officers. I know that the Minister is sympathetic and that there is sympathy on the Government Benches for CNC officers. It is time to get this matter sorted. It has already dragged on for far too long and every day is doing more damage to the service.

If the Government do not see, or will not pay attention to, the evidence that is staring them in the face, they should not be surprised if we see serious and catastrophic consequences for national security. The CNC will undoubtedly struggle increasingly to fulfil its important mission of protecting the UK’s civil nuclear sites at home or in transit, and to supplement the resources of armed conventional officers as a part of the strategic armed policing reserve and Operation Temperer.

I urge the Minister to be mindful of the fact that this debate is not just about pensions. It is not about pounds and pence. Ultimately, it is about whether or not his Government think nuclear security, public safety and national security are worth paying for and valuing, and how much he and his Government believe they matter. I know that those things matter to everyone in the Chamber and to my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, in which the nuclear site of Hunterston sits. We all know it matters. What are his Government willing to do, in the face of a mountain of evidence, to show that they too believe that the work, health, wellbeing, careers, and, ultimately, the safety of our CNC officers matter?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Stringer, as, indeed, on other mornings and afternoons.

I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing the debate. I know that is a platitude and she asked me not to use platitudes, but I felt I ought to say that. She and I have been involved in quite a few things together, always on opposite sides, but I hope we have a mutual respect and she knows I am doing my best to resolve the issue. I cannot disagree with a lot of what she said—that is the last platitude, I promise.

The other Members who intervened showed their commitment to everything that goes on with nuclear in their areas. I mention first my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), not because she is on my side of the House, but because rarely a week goes by without us meeting two or three times, including the night before last, when we met the Secretary of State. I have had discussions on these matters with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and the hon. Member for Liverpool on many occasions, and I am always available to them for further discussion.

I thank the Minister for giving way. There is a level of frustration. I appreciate the kindness of intent in his having discussions, but, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, there is frustration over the continuing delay, which has gone on for years. Could we all keep it our mission to try to reach a positive conclusion?

I utterly accept that point. I must apologise to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for mixing up Hartlepool and Liverpool; I do not know why I did it. I hope the hon. Gentleman is not too offended. Perhaps it is because I come from Leeds, which is between the two. I got mixed up.

I am not going to say how important the Civil Nuclear Constabulary is to the nuclear industry, because everybody knows that. One of my early visits, and one of the most significant I have had in this job, was to Sellafield, where I saw the training centre. I did not just have a tour; I also saw how heavy the kit is, I spoke to a lot of officers and I heard about the training regimes they undertake. I do not think I could walk around all day and be fully mobile with the kit they have to wear and carry. I fully accept the level of fitness that is required. Chief Constable Mike Griffiths, who is about to leave the force, explained it clearly to me. He transformed the CNC so that it has become the modern force it is today.

The CNC is moving to the new pension scheme on 1 April next year. I have been keen to hear evidence and representations on the effect of the higher pension age on the effectiveness of the force. We engage with the CNC and the Civil Nuclear Police Federation, which I met last year, and I am well aware of their views. As soon as those views were brought to my attention, I contacted the Treasury and others in Government to try to resolve the issue. The least I could do was hear their representations—that is my job, as I am doing today—but I fully accept the importance of getting the matter resolved as quickly as possible.

I have contacted the Cabinet Office, because it administers the civil service pension scheme. The Treasury is responsible for public pensions policy and I have set out the arguments to officials there. It is easy to regard the Government as one collective group—that is perfectly reasonable and I understand that—but it is my job to support the causes within my Department within Government, and this issue is a top priority.

My officials have been working with the constabulary to gather additional evidence of the impact on national security, which the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned, of the higher pension age. I have also facilitated a meeting this week between special advisers from No. 10 and the constabulary, in which these matters were discussed. I am trying to bring all these things together to resolve the problem.

However, like most things in life, the problem is more complex than it would appear on the surface. We know, as I have said, that the tests and weapons are very important; I do not think anyone who visits or sees pictures of them could deny that. On the question of why CNC officers are not treated as police officers in the normal way, a judicial review in 2016 determined that they are employees of the Civil Nuclear Police Authority, so they come under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and are not defined as police officers for the purposes of the Public Service Pensions Act. That is the legal position.

Fitness standards were rolled out, as the hon. Lady said, in 2015-16, and authorised firearms officers must meet College of Policing mandated standards.

The Minister has set out his understanding of the challenging and important job that CNC officers do. I put it to him that perhaps the reason for the dither and delay across Government is because there appears to be, as I know from questions I have asked on the Floor of the House, a real lack of understanding at the heart of Government of what these officers are required to do, the challenges they face and the importance of the role they play.

I must respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady, if only because I have tried it myself. I have been there and seen that, so my understanding is not just based on representations. I hope she accepts that I understand this; there may be others who do not, but it is my job to make sure that they do. I accept that—it is my responsibility and my job.

The capabilities are very complex. The two tests of fitness and firearms capability determine whether an officer is deployable. It is the officer’s capability, rather than age, that is the determining factor, and I think that must be the right approach. Being in the age range of those who would be in such a position, as I was explaining to the hon. Lady before the debate started, I admit that, although some people are vastly fitter than I am, I would find it very difficult myself at my age of 61. I know it is harder for older officers to attain the fitness standards, but the College of Policing independently determines the standard that authorised firearms officers must achieve to do their job effectively and safely. That is a matter of national security and I accept that it cannot be compromised.

The Public Service Pensions Act legislated to introduce the link between scheme normal pension age and state pension age for most public service pension schemes, to ensure that the cost over the long term remains sustainable. I will not go further into that, because the hon. Lady marked my card that I might, and she does not want platitudes about people getting older. She is quite right, so I will not say it, but we must accept the fact that, in the end, all public service schemes have to be funded and public service employees have to work for longer.

In certain areas—prison officers are another case—there are not a lot of back-office jobs that people who are older can do. In the police force generally, there are plenty of those functions; I do not just mean some back-office clerical function, because there are many things that are less active but still fully contribute to the objectives of a particular police force. I accept that nuclear is one sector where that is less possible, because there just are not many similar functions.

The equality analysis accepted that it is harder for older female officers to attain such high fitness standards. A pension scheme has to be fair to females too, because they have a flatter career trajectory for that reason. The proposed pension scheme, alpha, is a career average earnings scheme rather than a final salary scheme. Changed contribution rates under this scheme will help employees with shallower career trajectories, which historically means women rather than men, although, obviously, male officers in the same position will also benefit.

I will also highlight the ill-health retirement provisions. We recognise that CNC officers have a higher rate of musculoskeletal disorders from carrying the heavy kit. The ill-health retirement provisions in their current pension scheme are quite strict and allow an ill-health retirement only where the officer is not capable of any other work. Consequently, officers who gain an ill-health retirement are not allowed to do any work after their exit from the force.

The alpha scheme, however, gives its members choice and recognises that it is desirable for people to continue working if they are able. It affords a lower tier of benefit to those who are unable to continue working in their role or a comparable one, so an officer could leave the CNC with an ill-health pension but still gain employment elsewhere to supplement their income and have a full working life in a more suitable job.

I am very aware of the current retention issues affecting the constabulary. I have been informed that there have been an unusually high number of resignations—in the last month alone there were 26—and that 19 officers are moving across to the Ministry of Defence Police. I do not think that the evidence presented is strong enough to draw a direct link between the current retention issues facing the CNC and the move to a different pension scheme, since many of the officers resigning are moving to a force that has the same pension scheme that the Civil Nuclear Police Federation is resisting.

I also do not consider the current retention issues facing the CNC to be a national security crisis. The CNC has assured us that it can operate with its current force strength, albeit officers are being asked to do overtime. If that changes, I will reappraise my position, but the CNC is still policing our nuclear sites to its required regulatory strength and our nuclear estate remains secure. I am grateful for the explanation and arguments that the hon. Lady and other colleagues have given today.

I thank the Minister for his response, but can I ask him to explain something? I know that a lot of CNC officers do not understand this, and I do not either: why has a retirement age for CNC officers been set that, realistically, they cannot reach?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s premise that realistically those officers cannot reach it. I accept that some of them cannot, but obviously some people can and some cannot; I mentioned myself, but many people are far fitter than me in doing that job and other dangerous jobs in society.

The hon. Lady told me—I know this is not your fault, Mr Stringer—that she had applied for this debate quite some months beforehand. I am glad we have had the debate, but if that happens in the future, she is welcome to contact me directly to discuss issues such as this. That would perhaps not be in such a public forum, but if she finds the system frustrating and she cannot get a debate, she is welcome to contact me.

In summary, I have met everyone concerned in this matter. I am pushing colleagues in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, and I would like to see it resolved as soon as I possibly can.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.