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Superannuation Bill

Part of Freedom of Information (Amendment) – in the House of Commons at 8:33 pm on 7th September 2010.

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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham 8:33 pm, 7th September 2010

I declare a strong constituency interest in the Bill. Like many other Members, I have my fair share of constituents who work in local offices of central Government Departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. For the moment, I also have constituents who do important work involving the environment and the countryside at Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities. But, of course, most of those in Cheltenham who describe themselves inconspicuously as civil servants work at GCHQ. They form the largest part of what the Prime Minister has rightly described as

"the finest intelligence services in the world."-[ Hansard, 6 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 175.]

GCHQ traces its roots directly to the wartime Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, which, as we now know, made a huge contribution to victory in the second world war. That contribution, however, remained largely unknown and unrecognised for decades because of the absolute discretion and loyalty of those anonymous civil servants-people like my own parents, who worked at Bletchley and, later, at GCHQ. When the history books are written 60 years from now, who knows what silent victories we will learn were being achieved as we spoke here today, and which will remain secret for decades to come because of that same brand of loyalty? I must say that, on the face of it, this Bill is a pretty poor reward for the loyalty of my constituents in GCHQ and of all the other civil servants in Cheltenham.

It has been suggested that, on average, public sector pay has caught up with private sector pay. I will not invite a repetition of the earlier altercation across the Chamber about which is higher, but neither of the sets of figures cited were based on directly comparable jobs and careers, and that is what really matters. A constituent who wrote to me put it very well:

"I've had a long career in the public sector and watched my university friends prosper in the private sector. They have had company cars, private health care and almost without exception greater earnings. In compensation I had more flexible working, a good pension (although not as good as friends in the insurance industry) and the knowledge that I wasn't in a hire and fire culture. Yet now, all the benefits are under attack but I can never make up for all those years of lower pay."

The mathematicians, linguists and IT experts at GCHQ are some of the finest minds in the country and had they chosen to work for Vodafone or Hewlett-Packard they would have undoubtedly earned more-perhaps much more-but they chose to serve us instead. As one of my friends who worked at GCHQ once wryly told me, "It does inhibit you a bit in job interviews when you're asked to describe your work over the last few years and you have to say, 'I'm not allowed to.'"

GCHQ may be a rather extreme example, but it is true that many civil service careers do not translate easily into private sector job opportunities, especially if they have been very long careers in the civil service. The key point has been made by John McDonnell, my hon. Friend John Thurso and others: our civil servants make life choices based on the promises we make to them. They make decisions about their homes, where they live, the schools their children attend, and above all they make career choices and financial decisions. They expect that if the day comes when it really matters we will keep our side of the bargain and repay their loyalty as promised. Well, that day has obviously come.

There is no question that the Government are right to take drastic action to prevent further damage to our economy. I regret it deeply, but there is no question that many civil and public servants will inevitably have to lose their jobs. The last Labour Government knew that too. The Cheltenham offices of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities are all closing, with inevitable redundancies. As overall departmental cuts bite there will doubtless be more, although I truly hope that an organisation as vital to the national interest as GCHQ will be looked at with the most extreme care.

There is also no question that the Government are right to look at the civil service compensation scheme, which may now be more-possibly much more-generous, especially to top earners, than we can afford. That was certainly the conclusion of the Labour Government when they too tried to curtail the scheme to control costs. As Matthew Hancock said, it is true that, if we do not economise enough here, we will have to economise somewhere else.

For all those reasons I understand why Ministers had to look closely at the scheme. Labour tried and failed to curtail the scheme by compulsion, but, of course, this Bill does not simply repeat that attempt at compulsion. It reduces the limit on redundancy compensation to one year's pay, which is even more drastic than Labour proposed. Incidentally, it is also more drastic than the terms that apply in other areas of public service such as the NHS or local government.

Another constituent wrote to me that as a civil servant she felt "victimised" by the new Government, and she was a Lib Dem supporter. If there is even a perception of that level of unexpected unfairness from our own supporters, we should hesitate before going ahead with this Bill. It is unexpected because these proposals were in neither coalition party manifesto. In the coalition programme for government there was a promise to reform the scheme and to bring it into line with the private sector. Reform can be very good. It could, for instance, have given civil servants some more of the security of the contractual guarantee of compensation enjoyed by many in the private sector, protecting them somewhat from the whims of Governments. The Bill, it seems to me, deviates radically from good practice and from the principles of the 1972 Act. It contains a compulsory and substantial reduction in the agreed rights of civil servants and, arguably, the legally accrued rights of civil servants to compensation, and will be enacted just when they may need them most and while negotiations are under way. I must agree with other hon. Members that using legislation as a negotiating tool is unworthy of this Government.

If it is intended that the negotiations should lead to a more generous settlement, especially for the lower-paid, which is what the Minister for the Cabinet Office suggested, and that we can therefore expect the repeal of clause 1 by Ministers in due course, that prompts the question of why it is needed in the Bill in the first place. Why not place a more generous cap, perhaps along the lines of the earlier proposals, in the Bill? Why do Ministers need a weapon that they have no intention of using?

My father could not tell me very much about his work at GCHQ, but he once shared with me the news that he had successfully concluded quite tough negotiations about terms and conditions with the GCHQ trade unions on behalf of GCHQ management. They bought him a drink afterwards and he, I hope, retained the respect and loyalty of his colleagues. I am not sure whether PCS will be buying Ministers drinks after all this is over, but as a Government we should, at the very least, aim to retain the loyalty and respect of our civil servants. In Cheltenham, our national security might depend on it.

Those GCHQ trade unions were subsequently banned by a less enlightened Government than this one-something that was mercifully reversed some years later. I am confident that such union bashing lies firmly in the past and that this Government are committed to policies that are transparently fair. I hope that Ministers will, on reflection, agree that this Bill in its current form does not pass that test. They will have guessed by now that I plan to vote against it tonight.

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