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Public Service Pensions: Government Contributions

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the reduction in Government contributions to public service pensions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. This debate is important to highlight the impact, across the public sector, of the reduction in Government pension contributions.

The Government are implementing a further reduction in the discount rate for public service pension schemes from 2.8% to 2.4%, which will take effect in 2019-20. Clearly, the reduction in Government contributions to public sector pensions is going to increase the strain across the public sector. Although the changes will have an impact across public services, for the purpose of the debate I will focus mainly on the police and fire services.

The reduction in Government contributions to public sector pensions will clearly add further strain to our frontline services, which have faced huge financial challenges, following eight years of Tory austerity. By 2021, police services will be expected to find around £420 million in order to set a balanced budget—that could mean losing a further 10,000 police officers. The change is also estimated to cost fire services £150 million by 2023, which is roughly equivalent to the cost of running 150 fire stations for a year.

To provide a bit of background, in the 2016 Budget the Chancellor announced a discount rate reduction from 3% to 2.8%, with effect from April next year. The Treasury decided more recently, however, that a further reduction—to 2.4%—was required. In September 2018, the Government said that the Departments and devolved Administrations would need to meet, in full, the increase in costs in the 2016 Budget announcement. The Treasury has advised that public bodies will be supported in meeting unforeseen costs in the 2019-20 financial year, when the changes first take effect, but compensation beyond the first year cannot be guaranteed.

Public service providers would have to increase employer contributions to the Treasury with no guarantee that additional moneys would be compensated beyond 2019-20. If public bodies were not compensated for the increased contributions beyond the first year, that would mean an indirect spending cut. Affected employers will therefore be forced to make costly changes without any certainty that Government funding for frontline services will be proportionately increased in years to come.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does he agree that although it is right and proper that NHS funding is ring-fenced until 2023-24, other frontline services, such as firefighters and the police, must also have the same protection as a matter of right, in recognition of the type of work that we call on them to carry out—to protect and serve?

I agree. All our emergency services do important work on our behalf, and that work needs investment. They cannot do that important work while worrying about how they are going to fund it.

There are significant concerns that the Treasury has introduced the changes as back-door spending cuts for already tightly squeezed public bodies and those delivering public services. In 2016, the trade union for senior civil servants, the FDA, said:

“It’s only three months since departmental budgets were set and yet departments are now expected to deliver an additional £3.5bn of savings in 2019/20 through another efficiency review…By announcing a change to the discount rate on public sector pensions—without any consultation—they are effectively removing a further £2 billion from public services and transferring it to the Treasury to give the illusion of a surplus”.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the cuts that he refers to, the South Yorkshire fire and rescue authority concluded in its financial plan that combined with the cuts and the 10 years of austerity, the pension contribution hikes will leave it no choice but to reduce fire services, with an increased risk to people and property as a result. Does he agree that the pension changes pose a clear and direct risk to the safety of our constituents?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Emergency services, such as firefighters and the police, are highly regarded and do important work on behalf of all our constituents. Safety will be an issue if the finances are not put in order to ensure that the accounts allow firefighters to continue their important work.

Earlier this year, the trade union Prospect said:

“Public sector employers will have to find additional resources to reflect these changes…However there is a real danger that Treasury will not recycle this money back to public service providers; that this process will, in effect, be a hidden cut to public services.”

As I said earlier, the discount rate change is estimated to cost firefighters £150 million by 2023, based on figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility. That is the equivalent of running 150 fire stations for a year. In 2017-18, employer pension contributions accounted for 7% of the total net expenditure among fire and rescue services in England, and for 7.6% of it in Wales. In England, local government settlement funding for the fire authorities is forecast to decrease by 15% between 2016-17 and 2019-20.

The impact on police is equally stark. By 2020-21, the police will face a financial black hole as their pension liability rises by around £420 million. The chair of the National Police Chiefs Council has warned that it could amount to a loss of a further 10,000 police officers, because the police are legally obliged to set a balanced budget. The recently announced settlement offers no certainty on the issue.

The National Police Chiefs Council is reported to have sent a formal letter to the Treasury saying that it will seek a judicial review of the Government’s proposals, and it is protesting against the fact that forces will have to find an extra £417 million in just two years’ time to pay for an increased minimum contribution to officers’ pension pots. That figure is set to rise from 2% to 3% by 2019 and, as I said, equates to the funding of around 10,000 officers a year. In response to an urgent question on 6 November about liabilities for the police pension schemes, the Minister said that funding arrangements for 2020-21 onwards would be discussed as part of the spending review.

I have covered the national picture, but I will highlight the local impact on my constituency. Two-thirds of my constituency is covered by South Wales police. The gap in that force for 2020-21, and for every year after, is likely to be around £7 million. If that burden is dumped on police forces, it will effectively be another massive cut to police budgets and lead to a further cut in police numbers. Those changes come on top of the additional £20 million that South Wales police have to find for local policing, having lost about a third of the police grant since 2011. In south Wales, the changes would be the equivalent of 130 fewer police officers on the streets, on top of the 444 officers who have already been lost since 2010.

The Home Office appears to have accepted that the police budgets are under severe constraints and, in the absence of central Government money, flexibility is being granted to raise local police precept to help to offset an enormous sustained challenge to police funding from seven years of cuts. Raising ever-increasing amounts from council tax payers, however, is not sustainable. Will the Minister fight to restore police funding to sustainable levels in the planned comprehensive spending review? Will he promise that the gap in funding for police pensions will be paid in full by the Government, having accepted that the police pensions costs increases cannot be funded from existing police budgets for 2019-20? I ask the Minister to note that the Home Affairs Committee said that the police funding formula must be addressed urgently. Can he assure us that that will also be tackled in the comprehensive spending review in 2019?

The other third of my constituency falls within the area of Gwent police. In cash terms, the changes add £2 million of extra costs to its budget in 2019-20—although some of that will be offset by the Home Office—and a further £3 million of extra costs in 2020-21. That totals around £5 million, recurrently. A recurrent pension pressure of £5 million for the Gwent force equates to 100 police officers in Gwent communities. It would be necessary to increase the local precept in Gwent disproportionately, by about 8% by 2021. Such figures are not sustainable and would transfer ever more pressure to local council tax payers.

As I said at the start of my contribution, the changes will impact across the public sector. I have focused on police and fire, but I will highlight briefly the effect of the recent changes to the teachers’ pension scheme on universities throughout the UK. The Treasury appears to have shown little awareness of the significant impact that those changes would have on universities and students, and has failed to commit any additional support for the institutions affected. I accept that the Minister will respond on behalf of the Home Office, but I hope that he will convey our concerns to his colleagues. I understand that the Government themselves estimate that the changes will mean additional pension costs of £142 million, shared across only 70 of the modern, or post-1992, universities. That will clearly place huge strain on budgets that are already under significant pressure.

Today, I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some good news to our overstretched public services. We all acknowledge, I know, that public services—our public servants—and our emergency services in particular, work incredibly hard on our behalf and deserve our thanks and appreciation. However, public services cannot survive on thanks and appreciation.

Does the hon. Gentleman not share my concern about the lack of consultation with the devolved Administrations? He might have seen correspondence about that, because the lack of consultation is actually against the UK Government’s statement of funding policy.

I very much agree with the point made by the hon. Gentleman. We are talking about significant amounts of money, and maximum consultation should be required, at the very least. As I have said throughout my contribution, such figures are too unsustainable to be transferred to local budgets anyway.

As I said, our public services cannot survive on thanks and appreciation. Investment is required to sustain the services that we already have. The Government need to come to the table and outline what support they will offer to address the problem. Our public services—our emergency services—have suffered enough.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Christopher.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing this important debate. I am grateful to him because he is shining a light on a very important issue that Parliament has not given enough attention to. The reduction in Government contributions to public sector pensions from 2.8% to 2.4% will have a huge impact and place additional strain on our already overstretched public services, unless the Government take action to ensure that public bodies are compensated for their additional contributions.

By 2021, police services will be expected to find an extra £420 million, which equates to the loss of a further 10,000 police officers if all the authorities set a balanced budget. The change is also estimated to cost our fire services an extra £150 million by 2023, which is equivalent to running 150 fire stations. The problem seems particularly acute when it is placed alongside the cuts to local government, because the poorest local authorities in this country have borne the biggest cuts—my own authority in Durham will have seen a massive 60% cut in its budget between 2010 and 2020. If the Government do not compensate our local authorities properly for the measure, we will see a further negative impact on our public services. In our own local communities, we all know how stretched the police and fire services already are. It is important for them to be funded adequately by the Government.

As we heard from my hon. Friend in his excellent and comprehensive contribution, at the moment the Treasury is giving no guarantee that the additional moneys will be compensated beyond 2019-20. According to Treasury analysis, the measure is expected to increase employer contributions by £1,970 million in 2019-20 and £2,005 million by 2020-21. We are not talking about a small amount of money that those bodies can easily plan for; those are huge sums of money that will really impact on the delivery of our public services. We are asking those public services to plan for the future with no real idea of what their budget will be. To assist with effective planning, if nothing else, the Government need to come forward with information about what they will do about compensating for those additional contributions, because none of us wants to see further damage done to our public services.

My hon. Friend alluded to a further problem, namely what is happening to our universities, which are not being compensated at all for the additional contributions that they have to make. For the teachers’ pension scheme, the Treasury agreed to compensate schools and colleges —again, only for the limited period for which it is compensating everyone else, up to 2019—but not universities, which run such schemes for their lecturing staff. Furthermore, that particular problem exists only for the new universities, so apart from anything else the Government are being extremely unfair. They are singling out the post-1992 universities for particular trouble, and they are simply not looking at the huge impact on university funding.

University funding has already been affected by the freeze in tuition fees with no additional money coming through from Government, and now we have the additional pension contributions. Again, we are not talking about small amounts of money. The increase in the teachers’ pension scheme is one of 7.3% to employers, bringing their total contribution up to 23.68%. That has a massive impact on university budgets. For the civil service—while we are at it, we might as well look at this, too—there is a 6.1% increase for civil servants and a 6.22% increase for the NHS. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that will have a huge impact on the NHS.

I am always pleased to see the Minister in his place, but given the nature of today’s debate, a Treasury Minister should have come to this Chamber to answer on behalf of the Government why they have produced additional uncertainty for all the public services, including the civil service and the NHS, by not giving them an assurance of compensation for the increased contributions. Furthermore, a number of us have been asking questions for a while about why the new universities are being treated so unfairly, and we need an explanation from the Government. That has not been forthcoming to date.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association has said:

“The proposed employer contribution increases will without doubt have a detrimental impact on universities, their staff and their students at a time of great uncertainty and we would urge the Treasury to reconsider.”

I endorse that message, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I will keep my speech short since, as is well known, for the last week I have been struggling to make speeches because of my sore throat. You will be pleased to know, Sir Christopher, that the House of Commons nurse recommended whisky—I will take advantage of that this evening.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing this important debate. This issue will have an impact across public services, particularly public sector employers. I consider pensions to be deferred pay, so we should always look carefully at any changes to be made to public service pensions. A lower discount rate would, in the absence of other charges, result in higher contribution rates that public services across the board are expected to absorb.

As hon. Members have said, the employers currently in unfunded public sector pension schemes are the NHS, state schools, and the police and fire services. Any change in the discount rate would have an impact on those contributions. The UK Government announced they would fund most Departments’ additional costs incurred by the September 2018 changes for the 2019-20 year. Beyond that, Government’s position appears to be that meeting costs would form part of the spending review discussions.

The letter I referred to in my intervention on the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was from the then Welsh Government Finance Minister—now First Minister—in a joint letter with Derek Mackay, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance. It lays out the concerns to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. As I understand, she indicates that it is her intention to meet 100% of all costs related to the valuation of the health pensions scheme in England only. That leaves the devolved Administrations having to meet that cost, at the expense of public services. As I said, that is at variance with the UK’s Government’s statement of funding policy, which states that any measures with an impact on devolved responsibilities should have prior engagement and consultation. The fact that there was no prior engagement and consultation is of great concern to Members in the devolved nations, as it certainly should be.

It is quite clear that the public sector across the board has been hung out to dry, with little time to prepare to meet the additional costs of the revised discount rate. Hon. Members explained rather well the impact that would have on their services locally and the potential money that will have to be found to fund public services. The potential cost to public sector jobs was a point very well made by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods). I agree with her that a Treasury Minister really should have responded in this debate. With all due respect to the Minister—I do not know whether he got the short straw in a raffle—the Treasury should be here because it was a Treasury decision. That we have someone from the Home Office—with all due respect to the Minister, who I like—is somewhat baffling. Members have to hold Government Ministers to account, but we always like to have a debate with the correct Minister answering questions.

I would like public sector pension arrangements to be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that colleagues in Wales, having seen this disaster, will probably share that view. There is real concern across the public sector that is shared across the board by Opposition members. I look forward to the Government’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing such a vital debate.

The decision to reduce Government contributions to public sector pensions is highly flawed. I will give a short introduction to the damaging reforms, before outlining their flaws and seeking some clarifications from the Minister. The Government’s SCAPE—superannuation contributions adjusted for past experience—discount rate expresses the amount of central Government funding committed to public sector pensions. In the 2016 Budget, the Government announced that they would reduce their contributions from 3% to 2.8%. Then, without further consultation, they announced a further 2.4% reduction to contributions. The Treasury has acknowledged that the reform is a result of the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasting lower long-term economic growth rates—in spite of that, we are told we have a booming economy.

It is vital that the reform is not mistaken as a necessity, much like the wider incorrect assertion that austerity was a necessity. The reform is the Conservatives’ ideological response to lower growth caused by their austerity programme, which incidentally took place alongside tax cuts for the very wealthy. It would seem that the country can afford tax cuts even if it cannot afford to properly fund our public service pensions—something I find really reprehensible. That policy must be understood within the Government’s wider agenda.

The effects of the reduction cannot be understated: it will mean a reliance on employers to increase their contributions to ensure public sector pensions continue to receive sufficient funding. Importantly, the Treasury has made no guarantee that additional funding will be provided beyond 2019-20 to help to compensate employers. Let us see this policy for what it is: a pay cut—yet another pay cut—for our local public services, under the guise of fiscal tinkering. The Treasury even acknowledged that in 2016, when it announced that Departments and devolved Administrations would have to foot the cost.

Although we are reassured—I am sure the Minister will reaffirm once again—that employee contributions will not be impacted, let us be completely honest: staffing costs will increase and public services will keep having to do even more with fewer resources. We hear a lot of praise for our services, especially at Christmas time, but let us remember that no one can spend a pat on the back. To clarify, the Government’s policy aims to force costly changes upon our crippled public services with no future certainty of financial support. It might be expected that after studying the work by the Treasury’s own advisory teams, the Minister would raise various objections with the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary. Estimates forecast that the reduced pension contribution will require employers to increase their contributions by £1,970 in 2019-20. I am extremely concerned that the cost will be met through back-door spending cuts for public sector budget that are already at breaking point.

The Government heard concerns from the FDA in 2016 about budgets being set across the public sector. Now, an additional £3.5 billion may have to be found through another efficiency review. This is a direct transfer of funding from our public services into the Treasury. That may as well have been an additional tax on our public services, which have been starved and deprived of funding for years. One would hope that the money would be reused and invested in areas where our public services desperately need funding; although that still would not be sufficient, the rationale would make sense.

However, the reality will be much different. Like the last eight years of Tory rule, we can expect corporate tax cuts alongside prolonged austerity. We know who suffers the most from those. The effects of this policy on the police service were discussed in the Adjournment debate in November by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). Although I will not repeat a lot of the powerful points that Members have already raised, it is important that a crucial element is identified: the substantial financial pressure will be too much for the current budget settlements to sustain.

The current chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, Sara Thornton, raised concerns about the incurred cost on the police service. She stated that forces are organising their medium-term forecasts, which means that forces in England and Wales may need to find an extra £417 million from existing budgets by 2020-21. I find it very uncomfortable that while the Government present the narrative that they are addressing the shortage of police officers, this policy may result in the equivalent of 10,000 job losses and severe damage to the sustainability of local police forces.

The fire service will be put under immense pressure if this policy is implemented. The service has suffered swingeing cuts for eight consecutive years now, and in 2017-18 employer contributions equated to 7% of English fire services’ net expenditure. Office for Budget Responsibility figures estimate that fire services across England will suffer from cuts of at least £150 million by 2023, which will be absolutely devastating for the service. I speak to firefighters, the Fire Brigades Union and councillors often; I am sure the Minister does too, so he should know full well the devastation that such cuts may cause. He may well have heard the same concerns that I have been privy to.

That sum of £150 million is the equivalent of running 30 fire stations for five years or paying the annual wage of thousands of firefighters, but alongside that, local government settlement funding for fire authorities in England is forecast to decrease by 15% between 2016-17 and 2019-20. As of March, fire and rescue authorities in England have £61.2 million in unallocated reserves. How can they be expected to pick up the bill without central Government assistance?

The situation of fire services is very worrying. We have heard Matt Wrack, who as general secretary of the FBU really ought to know what he is talking about, assert numerous times that budget cuts are putting our communities’ safety at risk. The Minister is hearing that from true experts in the field, and I do not think it can be doubted. We can see the risks of additional cuts. The Merseyside fire and rescue service has been forced to cut overnight cover at six stations. The Tyne and Wear fire service has been forced to consider new cuts in its integrated risk management plan, having already been forced to save £25 million since 2010. Surely neither would do that if they had any other choice.

I would like the Minister to explain what measures he intends to implement to cushion the blow to the fire service’s budget post 2019-20, and whether he has assessed the consequences of the pension reform on specific fire services across the UK and across different regions. Furthermore, will he undertake to implement a funding review for the fire service alongside the pensions consultation?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. As a humble foot-soldier in the Government, it is not for me to reason why I drew the straw for this debate. I assume it is because I am the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, and I understood that the primary concern of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), as was reflected in the debate, was the impact on emergency frontline services. It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing it. It is an important debate, because it throws a spotlight on two important issues.

The first is how we ensure that public pensions are funded in a sustainable way to protect the value of the pensions of those of our constituents who work in the public services; I know the Labour party cares about that and I would not want to give the impression that it does not. It is entirely legitimate to probe and ask questions about the impact, particularly on emergency frontline services, which we recognise on a cross-party basis are stretched and under pressure. This is an entirely legitimate debate and I welcome it.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asserted that our emergency services deserve our thanks and respect—particularly at this time of year but, frankly, every week and every month of every year—but they also deserve a decent pension, and our constituents as taxpayers deserve full debate and reassurance on how those pensions will be funded in a fair, sustainable way that strikes the right balance between the contributions of the central taxpayer and the local employer. That is what underlies the Treasury position, as I will explain. I hope to reassure the hon. Gentleman and others that the Treasury, which is not here to explain itself today, and the rest of the Government are doing everything we can to help our emergency services in particular, but also other Departments, to manage any uncertainties in terms of unexpected costs in 2019-20. I will go into some detail on that.

Quite rightly, the hon. Gentleman and others voiced concerns about what happens after 2020-21, but they will know that the fundamental truth is that at that point we will be into a new comprehensive spending review period. That is an extremely important moment in setting the framework for longer-term funding, not just for our emergency services, but for other Government Departments. I can give the hon. Gentleman my absolute assurance, if I continue to be Minister at that point—we live in uncertain times—that I am determined, as I have said publicly and as my boss the Home Secretary has said publicly, to ensure that the emergency services are properly resourced against demand and risk. That includes a need to ensure that they have the resources necessary to meet their obligations to public pensions.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that at this moment in time, no Government could give absolute reassurances about what the next CSR period will bring, but we have signalled clearly that increased employer contributions to public pensions from 2020-21 will be taken care of in the CSR. In the meantime, the Treasury has set aside £4.7 billion, which I think would seem to all our constituents to be an extremely large number, to help Departments cover unforeseen additional costs in 2019-20. I will go into some detail on the areas of my direct responsibility, police and fire, because concerns have been expressed about people in those services from both sides of the Chamber.

Before I address those concerns, I acknowledge an important point made both by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) about concerns within the community of universities. That is not my area of direct responsibility or expertise, but I undertake to write to the new Universities Minister on their behalf to highlight the concerns expressed in the debate and to ask him to respond to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney in the light of those concerns.

To give a bit of context, the Government—I am sure with cross-party support—want to make sure that public sector pensions remain among the best pensions available, especially for police officers and firefighters, in recognition of their role. We are determined, as any Government would be, to make sure that the cost of providing pensions is fair to the scheme’s members, the employers and taxpayers. I think any Government would take the same approach. We want to be sure that they remain affordable and sustainable for generations to come. That is the context of the changes announced to the discount rate at the Budgets in 2016 and 2018. As the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) said, they were based on the latest independent Office for Budget Responsibility projections of GDP growth.

The changes to the discount rate have resulted in an increase to public sector employers’ contributions to their pension schemes, including the police and firefighters’ schemes. The hon. Lady was quite right that the intention was not to increase the members’ contribution rate. I confirm that that is not being contemplated. It is an increase in employers’ contributions. Critically to the point of this debate, the Government have provided financial support for additional pension costs that could be reasonably expected to be unexpected. The extra funding is £98 million for fire in 2019-20 and £153 million for the police. As I have said before, funding levels for future years will be considered as part of the spending review. That is inevitable, given where we are in the funding cycle for Departments.

A lot of concern was expressed on behalf of both the services. I know the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney is aware of the police funding settlement that I proposed last week, although obviously it has not been passed by Parliament. That recognised the additional pension costs to the police. He mentioned a number of more than £400 million. Actually, in 2019-20, the additional costs to the police system would be approximately £330 million. He will be aware that the overall police funding settlement enables up to £970 million of additional investment in our police, although that depends very much on what individual police and crime commissioners do on the precept.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that this funding settlement sees the first increase in the Home Office grant since 2010. The proposed funding for South Wales police, for example, which faces the pressure of additional pension costs of £6.8 million next year, is an additional £3.3 million in Government grant and £3.1 million in specific pension grant, while the police and crime commissioner, Alun Michael, will have the flexibility to increase the precept up to £12.7 million, making a total of £19.1 million. I hope he will welcome that.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about Gwent police, which I know partly covers his constituency. The funding settlement enables additional public investment of up to £8.5 million in Gwent police, which faces pensions pressures of £2.9 million. He will be aware, because he will have heard me bang on about it, that Gwent police is an outlier, with £56 million in reserves—more than 45.3% of its total funding. Those reserves have increased since 2011.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the provisional police funding settlement, which is yet to be ratified by Parliament—I hope he will support it—goes well beyond meeting the specific additional pension costs and tries to support police forces both with their cost pressures and in their ambitions to increase capacity. That is part of a broader funding settlement that proposes a substantial increase of up to £970 million in the police system, compared with additional pension costs of £330 million.

I should also note that the police funding settlement talks about a word that never comes up in these conversations, but that is important for all our constituents, who ultimately pay for all this through their taxes: efficiency. The shadow Minister views austerity as ideological but, after eight years of austerity, that we can still sit down with our police leaders and agree £120 million of further cost savings through smarter procurement—they are spending our constituents’ money—tells us that we are still not at the end of the journey of making sure that our public services are efficient. Where the police lead, the fire service will undoubtedly follow, not least as they are both under the guidance of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services.

We have had eight years of austerity. I come from a local authority background myself, and identifying efficiencies at first is relatively straightforward, but it gets more difficult over time. The Minister mentions reserves, and I know that some areas have reserves. However, there is a big difference between reserves earmarked for certain projects, which all local authorities, police authorities and others have, and undisclosed reserves, which are much lower for many organisations. The point about reserves is that, once they are spent, they are gone. They are there for a rainy day; they cannot be used as part of a recurring budget. It is unfair for recurring expenditure to fall on council tax payers to an even greater level than it does already.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I absolutely respect his local authority experience. I am certainly not in denial about the financial pressures, particularly on our police system but also on certain fire services as well. He is right that, in the early years of needing to get back to living within our means and controlling public expenditure, some fruit was easier to pick than others, and it gets harder. However, I was making the point that we are talking about £120 million of savings agreed by the police—this is not a Home Office number—over the next two years through collective procurement. That is just smart buying.

The hon. Gentleman will know very well, and it is the same for the fire service, that a fragmented system of more than 40 different forces each doing their own thing —buying helmets, uniforms and equipment independently—is not necessarily the most efficient route to getting the best value for our constituents. All I am saying is that, even after eight years of tightening and reducing budgets, we can still find £120 million left on the table because of inefficient procurement practices. I hope he welcomes that. That money was effectively being wasted and can be better used for frontline service delivery. I hope he agrees.

I will be delighted to give way to the hon. Lady. I have very happy memories of her shadowing me very effectively many years back.

I thank the Minister for those comments. I accept his point about efficiencies. However, we are really talking about the overall size of the cake. The police force and the fire authority in Durham have already significantly reduced in size since 2010, to the point that they struggle to run an effective service. We can talk about procurement and efficiencies, but the pressure on our public services is enormous. That has to be the starting point of these discussions.

I have the greatest respect for the hon. Lady and I absolutely understand the point she makes. She will not have followed all my public utterances over the last two years or for however long I have been in this role, but I acknowledged right from the start, after listening to the police and fire services, that the frontlines of our emergency services are stretched. I have said so publicly. The actions I have taken through the police funding settlements last year and this year demonstrate, frankly, a move from cuts to increased investment, in direct response to conversations I have had, not least those with frontline officers expressing their frustration about how stretched they are. I absolutely accept that point.

Of course, £120 million, in the context of the £970 million funding settlement, is still at the margin, but the central point is that we cannot give up pushing those who spend public money to demonstrate that they spend it in the most effective way. It is not Government money; it is our constituents’ money. They pay it in taxes and expect it to be used properly. We will not let up on that, because £1 saved through smarter procurement is £1 that can be used for more effective frontline delivery.

I will talk about the implications for the fire service, because that was the main thrust of the shadow Minister’s points. I reassure her that, as we work towards the next comprehensive spending review, the Home Office will do a similar exercise to that which we have done with the police—I will be leading this—to genuinely try to understand the demand on the system, both in terms of the demand on the core statutory duty and also the financial pressures that the system is under. We will ask tough questions on efficiency, the use of reserves and all the things that we debate, but we only do so because we are ultimately stewards of public money—it is not Government money, it is taxpayers’ money—and that is our job. I am absolutely determined, through the CSR, to make sure that both the police and the fire service have the resources they need. I have shown through my words, and more importantly through my actions, that we have responded to those messages about genuine stretch and pressure on the frontline.

In 2019-20, single-purpose fire and rescue authorities will see an increase in core spending power of 2.3% in cash terms. The additional employer pension costs for the fire service will be an additional £10 million in 2019-20. The Government will cover the rest of the increase by providing an additional pension grant of £98 million. Standalone fire and rescue authorities, excluding Manchester, will be able to raise an additional £38 million in 2019-20 if all fire and rescue authorities increase the precept by 3%. We believe that will allow fire authorities to meet their financial pressures and continue to invest in key capabilities.

In addition, fire and rescue authorities hold significant financial reserves, which have increased—this is the point—by over 80% to £545 million between the end of March 2011 and the end of March 2018, which is equivalent to 42% of their core spending power. I will always refer to that, because there needs to be proper transparency and accountability.

The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who is no longer in her place, talked about the pressures on South Yorkshire. Again, its core spending power increased by 1.7%. It sits on reserves worth almost 50% of its core spending power, and those reserves have increased by £9.5 million since March 2011. Like most fire authorities, it is starting out on the road to independent inspection and it is, I understand, in tranche 3 and will be inspected in summer 2019. One of the things it will be inspected on is efficiency. It will be interesting to see how it comes out of that inspection.

In relation to the police, I genuinely believe that the combination of the specific pension grant, the increase in the Home Office grant, the efficiency savings that we have agreed to realise, the high level of reserves that still remain in the system and a financial settlement that enables increased investment of up to £970 million in 2019-20, if fully realised—it does depend on the actions of police and crime commissioners—will mean that as a country we will invest over £2 billion more in 2019-20 than we did in 2015-16. While Labour MPs continue to make comparisons to 2010, the reality is that since 2015, the Government have recognised that the demand on the police system has risen and become more complex, and we have responded with additional public investment.

Finally, I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that the Government are working closely with both the policing and fire sectors, to ensure that they have the resources to enable them to do their challenging work efficiently and effectively. Alongside that, we are taking steps to ensure that the future funding of public pensions is affordable, sustainable and well balanced.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the reduction in Government contributions to public service pensions.

Sitting adjourned.