Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stop Press: Eric Pickles didn't eat my pension! Or did he?

It seems I was wrong when I said that Eric Pickles was sitting on a secret pensions deal ( Or was I?

At today's otherwise uneventful Annual General Meeting of the UNISON Greater London Region Local Government Committee, our National Head of Local Government assured us that Eric Pickles did not know the details of the deal cooked up between negotiators from the local government unions and employers, and sent to DCLG and the Treasury on 13 February.

This was in the context of a defence of the refusal of our negotiators to tell even our elected Service Group Executive (SGE) what it is that they and the employers have sent off to civil servants for approval (somehow, it would appear, without involving the relevant Secretary of State...)

There are, we were told, three reasons for this doubtful practice. The first reason is that you have to "weigh all the elements" of a deal as complex as one about pensions - and that too transparent a process of negotiation would (presumably) therefore have led to a disruptive cacophony of comment on this or that element of the proposed deal.

I'm not convinced.

Pensions are not nearly as complicated as those who make a living out of them would have you believe. Given a set "financial envelope" and consistent information about the demography and future employment prospects of current and future pension scheme members then you clearly do have to "weigh all the elements" - since it is fruitless to suppose that you can vary what you pay in (contribution rates) without an impact on what you get out (in a final salary scheme, as supported by Service Group Conference Policy, the accrual rate - or, in a career average scheme, as supported by the majority of the Service Group Executive in breach of Conference Policy, both the accrual and revaluation rates). This isn't so complex that it can't readily be understood by very many of our members, and explained to many more.

Particularly if our negotiators are aiming to sell us a career average scheme at some point, then there is a trade off between accrual and revaluation rates in particular on which there ought certainly to have been transparent consultation before now. There is an obvious and significant equality impact arising from how you strike a balance between accrual and revaluation rates and we ought to have been engaged in a discussion about this months ago.

At any event, as a justification for maintaining the secrecy of a proposed deal more than two months after the deal was struck and sent off to the Government, I think this argument is about as convincing as Nick Clegg's justification for supporting tuition fees. The union and employer side negotiators have, presumably, "weighed all the elements" and arrived at a conclusion. The argument that it is necessary to "weigh all the elements" can now, of itself, carry little weight as a justification for continued secrecy.

The second argument for the "hush hush" "Careless Talk Costs Pensions" approach which continues to be adopted is, apparently, that sensible people in the ranks of the Local Government Association (our employers) have wanted to keep details of any deal well away from the worst of the "Tory hawks" for as long as those "hawks" might be able to scupper a deal. It was in response to my comments on this justification that I was put right on my foolish assumption that civil servants in the Department for Communities and Local Government might possibly, since 13 February, have shared with their Secretary of State what is going on. I was told plainly that Eric Pickles doesn't know all the details.

Whilst I hesitate (as ever) to question conclusions drawn by UNISON's "world class" negotiators, I fear I do find it just the tiniest bit implausible that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government isn't being briefed on the details of discussions which will lead to legislation which he will have to steer through Parliament. Following from that, I think it unlikely that someone who was, in his time, one of the most ferocious (if least aerodynamic) of "Tory local government hawks" would maintain a vow of silence in dealings with those following in his (rightward-leading) footsteps on a matter so dear to their hearts (or to whatever it is they have instead of hearts).

I am not at all persuaded that a desire, however laudable, to keep information out of the hands of the Tory right wing can possibly justify continued secrecy about proposals sent on 13 February to the, er, Tory right wing.

The third reason offered to us today to explain why those of us who are merely members of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) ought not to know the details of proposals accepted and/or made on our behalf (by those who are, by and large, in other schemes) is, we were told, that both the unions and the LGA wanted to keep the DCLG and the Treasury out of the negotiations as far as possible. This is of a piece with our (perfectly reasonable) wish to have more control over our own money.

Indeed, such is the excitement with which some in our union can discuss pension fund governance issues that I confidently predict that, in any ballot, much will be made of an optimistic reading of where the "Principles of Agreement" between the unions and the LGA may lead in this regard ("You may have to work longer and pay more to get less but at least you'll be able to vote for someone who can be easily outvoted when decisions are made about where to invest the fund into which you will pay more in order to receive less, later...")

Returning to the point which was supposed to have been made by reference to this argument, it is a pretty poor justification for secrecy of pension proposals from LGPS members to say that we wish thereby to exclude DCLG and the Treasury from knowledge of those details, when this justification is advanced more than two months after we have submitted those same details to DCLG and the Treasury.

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Tired-old-Cynic) will have realised where I am going with these three points. There simply is no plausible justification for concealing the details of what was sent to the Government on 13 February from those of us whose pensions are on the line.

The only way in which this disgraceful practice - with which, to be fair, our Head of Local Government said she was "uncomfortable" - would make sense would be if the intention of rationing information was to disarm and immobilise those who might campaign against a national recommendation to accept a deal, no matter how dire (or to "accept that this is the best that can be achieved by negotiation" - the coward's version of capitulation).

Perhaps the scariest thing I heard today, from our guest speaker at our AGM, was that, if the Government did not endorse the proposals sent to them on 13 February then we (that is to say, our negotiators) might have to "shave bits off" other aspects of the scheme.


If the Government don't accept the "deal" put to them on 13 February (or even if they do) then the trade unions must publish the details immediately.

Let the members decide.

Not in a stage managed national ballot engineered to deliver acceptance without forcing the union to make an honest recommendation.

Rather, let the members decide through our elected Conference delegates in June making a considered recommendation to our hundreds of thousands of members in the Local Government Service Group. Surely other Service Groups must also be afforded the same opportunity, with special Conferences requisitioned as necessary.

After fabulous recruitment figures in the run up to 30 November, UNISON's membership growth has tailed right off. If we want to get that back on track we need both to be fighting still for decent pensions and reporting transparently to all our members about what we do.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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