Clause 86 - Amendments relating to employer cost cap

Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:45 pm ar 27 Ionawr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Llafur, Ealing, Southall

With this it will be convenient to discuss:

Government new clause 1—Amendments relating to employer cost cap.

Government new clause 2—Operation of employer cost cap in relation to 2016/17 valuation.

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The cost control mechanism is designed to ensure a fair balance of risk between public service pension scheme members and taxpayers with respect to the costs of those schemes. Clause 86 would ensure that there are no cuts to member benefits or increases to member contributions as a result of the cost control mechanism at the 2016 valuations. New clauses 1 and 2 are designed to replace and supplement the clause while preserving its existing effect. That goes to the point that I was discussing with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn at the outset of this morning’s proceedings.

The cost control mechanism was introduced following the recommendations of the Independent Public Service Pensions Commission in 2011. Although the commission recommended a mechanism to protect the Exchequer from increased costs, the Government went a step further and introduced a mechanism that is symmetrical, so also maintains the value of pensions to members when costs fall. At each scheme valuation, the mechanism assesses scheme costs against a base level. If those costs move beyond a certain amount compared with the base level, member benefits or contribution rates must be adjusted to bring costs back to target. All the main reformed public service pension schemes are subject to the cost control mechanism.

The intention was for the mechanism to be triggered only by unforeseen and unpredictable events. In 2018, the Government Actuary was asked to review the mechanism after the provisional results of the 2016 valuations suggested that the mechanism was too volatile and not operating in line with its objectives. The review commenced in 2020 and his final report was published in June 2021. It contained several recommendations on how to improve the mechanism. Following a full public consultation process, the Government confirmed in October last year that it would take forward three reforms to the mechanism in time for the next scheme valuations. All three reforms are recommendations by the Government Actuary.

New clause 1 sets the legislative framework for the implementation of two of those reforms: the reformed scheme only design and the economic check. A reformed scheme only design means that costs associated with the old legacy schemes are excluded from the mechanism. That will make it more stable and reduce intergenerational unfairness, because comparatively younger members’ benefits or contributions will not change based on the cost of legacy schemes to which they had little, or no, access. That transfers the risk associated with legacy scheme costs to the Exchequer, but ensures consistency between the set of benefits being assessed and the set of benefits potentially being adjusted.

The economic check will ensure consistency between member benefit or contribution changes and changes in the wider economic outlook of the country. There will be a higher bar for benefit reductions or contribution increases if the country’s long-term economic outlook has improved. That will equally apply to benefit increases or contribution reductions if the long-term economic outlook has worsened. The economic check will therefore operate symmetrically for the benefit of both members and taxpayers. It will operate in a transparent way and be linked to an objective and independent measure of expected long-term earnings and GDP growth from the Office for Budget Responsibility. Given that the economic check can only offset or prevent breaches, not cause them, the likelihood of changes to member benefits or contributions will decline.

As some members of the Committee will know, the Government also consulted on a third proposal to widen what is called the cost corridor, which will be implemented through secondary legislation in due course. That, again, is designed to reduce volatility. All three proposals will make the mechanism more stable and allow it to operate more in line with its objectives, giving members greater certainty with respect to their retirement incomes. The changes also reproduce, with technical changes, some subsections of the clause as it stands.

New clause 2 replaces clause 86 as it stands in the Bill. The change will ensure that there will be no cuts to member benefits or increases to member contribution rates as a result of the 2016 valuations. Again, that goes to the important point that we discussed at the outset—members will not lose out. However, any benefit improvements that are due will be implemented.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

We welcome the proposal in new clause 1 for a reformed scheme only design, which means that the cost of the legacy schemes will no longer be included in the cost control mechanism, but will the Minister provide clarity on a number of points? As he has said, it is a very technical Bill, so please bear with me.

On Second Reading, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated the Government’s intention to introduce secondary legislation in due course to widen the margin of the cost corridor from 2% to 3% of pensionable pay. Labour broadly supports that, and I recognise that it aims to provide greater certainty for members and the taxpayer, but, were the cost corridor to be widened to 3%, any upward breach of the CCM might potentially have a larger impact on members, as I am sure he recognises. Will he be willing to commit to publishing impact assessments of the proposed changes to the cost corridor for each public service scheme, to evaluate how members would be affected? Additionally, will the Minister confirm what mechanisms are to be put in place to monitor potential breaches of the cost corridor in the scheme, to ensure that members are given advance notice of possible changes in the value of their benefits?

We have far more serious concerns about new clause 2, which introduces a symmetrical economic check to the cost control mechanism. We object to such a scheme being introduced at such a late stage. It appears as if Ministers are making last-minute amendments to steamroller controversial elements of the Bill through without proper scrutiny. I want reassurance from the Minister that that is definitely not the case.

I will outline our main concerns about new clause 2. First, the Government’s proposal for an economic check appears to breach the 25-year guarantee given to employees by the Treasury in November 2011, as well as explicit promises made to the trade unions in 2012 that public sector employers would meet any costs arising from changes to long-term economic assumptions. The Bill should aim to restore the faith of public servants in their pension scheme following the Government’s £17 billion mistake in 2014. That has been echoed in Committee.

Instead, I fear that Ministers risk further undermining trust between the Government and public sector employees by ignoring the assurances given to public servants and their union representatives. The TUC, the National Education Union and PRS have all warned that the proposals unfairly penalise pension scheme members for lower than expected pay increases due to the public sector pay freeze and for the reduction in the expected growth of life expectancy.

In practice, that would likely prevent any improvement to public service pension schemes if costs fell below the cost control mechanism, as the Government would define such an outcome as perverse. However, the Government would be unlikely to view the opposite situation as perverse—where an upward breach of the cost control mechanism results in lower member benefits, coupled with a corresponding fall in employer contributions. The proposals appear to be one-sided and unfair. Will the Minister comment?

Finally, Labour Members are also concerned that the economic check is insufficiently transparent and provides too much room for ministerial interpretation of long-term economic assumptions, which could risk politicising the mechanism. I sincerely believe that the Government should rethink their approach to the economic check. We are opposed new clause 2 as it stands, and I will press it to a vote.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary) 1:00, 27 Ionawr 2022

I share a lot of the concerns that have just been expressed so eloquently from the Labour Front Bench. I have a couple of other issues with what is in the new clauses; perhaps the Minister will explain.

I understand why the Government want to build in growth in the economy, but at the same time I agree fully with the concerns expressed by the official Opposition. In new clause 1, in what circumstances does the Minister envisage

“or any sector of the economy” becoming relevant? In which particular sectors of the economy does he think that growth will be particularly relevant to local government or other public sector pensions?

The provision goes on,

“the growth in the economy…of the United Kingdom or any part of the United Kingdom”.

Who takes the decision that the economic performance of one particular part of the United Kingdom is relevant to a particular pension scheme or to all pension schemes? What do we mean by a “part” of the United Kingdom? Is that simply the four constituent nations? Can it be influenced more by the economy in London than the economy in Yorkshire?

As the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn mentioned a minute ago, the Bill will be far too vague at this point. It will put far too much power into the hands of, presumably, Ministers. There is no guarantee of any accountability or transparency as to the way this is operated. For that reason, my understanding is that a number of unions, although they support the intention behind new clause 1 in its entirety—I am struggling over whether to oppose the entire new clause, as I want to see a lot of stuff in there in the Bill—have significant concerns about that particular part of the economic check. If I were not opposing the new clause, I would be minded to table a more significant amendment at a later stage in proceedings. Will the Minister explain when he envisages a particular sector of the UK economy to be relevant, and when he expects that to be the economy in a particular part of the United Kingdom?

Finally, the Minister was keen to tell us what the unions had said about the previous transition arrangements. Will he tell us what the unions are saying about the economic check in this part of the Bill? Will he explain why he listened to the unions previously, but does not seem to be listening to them now?

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn. She is making an excellent point, and I am glad that she will press for a vote. The issue here relates to the need for transparency and trust, and the Government must reassure worried public servants, who have worked hard and have every right to expect a decent pension and retirement, that there is no sleight of hand here.

One of the three issues the Minister mentioned is to be dealt with in regulations, and the other two are on the face of the Bill. I would like him to reassure the Committee about the nature of those regulations, how they will be dealt with by the House and when they will be brought forward. I also remind him of the views of the independent Public Accounts Committee, which urged the Government to take the matter seriously, saying that the Government should

“quickly resolve the challenges presented by the McCloud judgment and cost control mechanism” and that that was important to rebuild trust. I hope the Minister will consider the PAC’s thoughtful advice on this matter.

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I thank all Members for their contributions, which I will take in turn. I hope to provide significant reassurance.

On the point that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn made about the widening of the cost corridor, the Government published a full impact evaluation as part of the consultation response on 4 October 2021, so that detail is available and is modelled.

To the point of the hon. Member for Reading East just now, the cost corridor is being addressed in regulations because the current 2% corridor exists under current powers, so we are simply amending 2% to 3% and do not need to introduce anything new.

As for the 25-year guarantee and the assurances given when the pension reforms were first introduced, the Government do not believe that the reforms breach that guarantee. The elements protected by the guarantee are set out in legislation and the cost control mechanism is not included among them. The Government are making these changes following an independent and thorough review of the mechanism by the Government Actuary’s Department and a full and open consultation process. As the GAD’s report makes clear, it does not seem possible for the mechanism to protect the taxpayer unless it considers the wider economic outlook, and the symmetrical operation of the economic check acts to protect members as well as the taxpayer.

The reforms will fundamentally lead to a more stable mechanism, with both benefit reductions and improvements becoming less likely. That aligns with the spirit of the guarantee which, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn quite rightly said, is all about certainty. There is absolute conviction that that is in everyone’s interest including, most importantly, scheme members.

As for how the situation is assessed and to the point of the hon. Member for Glenrothes about how we manage the long-term GDP expectation, the check will be linked to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s independent and objective measure of expected long-term GDP growth and the long-term earnings assumptions. The check will operate purely mechanically with no scope for interference from individuals or groups from within Government or outside. It will be an independent, objectively assessed measure by the OBR. There is no sense in which any Minister from whatever party is in government at whatever time would have the ability to intervene in that process. I hope that provides reassurance on all those points.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the Minister for that explanation. Is there an impact assessment for each scheme?

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

We have modelled the full detail. In so far as there is any particular point of clarification that the hon. Lady would like, I will happily write to her after these proceedings to provide whatever we can.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Will the Minister clarify something about the other part of my question? Who will decide whether the appropriate measure to use is the growth in the economy of the entire UK, the growth of the economy of one sector, or the growth in the economy of one nation or region? Is that decision within the remit of the OBR?

Question put and negatived.

Clause 86 accordingly disagreed to.