With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 79, and Government motion to disagree.
We return today to the Public Service Pensions Bill, which will put public service pensions on a fair and sustainable footing for generations to come. There was broad support from all parts of the House for this measure, and I am grateful to all those who have voiced an interest in the Bill for their co-operative approach. I would also like to draw the attention of the House to the progress the Bill has made in the other place.
First, when the Bill left this House, the Opposition were concerned about the wide scope of powers to make retrospective changes and to amend primary legislation. The Government understand that concern. Pensions are an important part of scheme members’ future income in retirement. We therefore tabled amendments in the other place to give members or their representatives a complete veto over any significant adverse retrospective change to their pensions and to restrict the powers to amend primary legislation. Furthermore, any Treasury orders for negative revaluation of scheme benefits will now need to be made by the affirmative Commons procedure.
Secondly, the Opposition sought further assurances on the governance elements of the legislation, particularly a requirement in the Bill for employee representatives on scheme boards. Again, I am pleased to report that the Government tabled amendments in the other place to require an equal balance of member and employer representatives, along with an explicit requirement for national scheme advisory boards.
My hon. Friend is talking about some welcome changes that the Government have made, but there is another party to this contract on pensions. The taxpayer will foot the bill for the unfunded part of the obligations of public sector pensions. Will he assure me—
Order. Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat? I do not blame him, in the first instance, because the trouble, the mischief, was started, however inadvertently, by the Minister, who is looking at me with an innocent expression belied by the reality of what he was saying in the debate. This is not a generalised debate; these are narrowly defined matters, and we are considering the relevant amendment, to which, to put it kindly, the hon. Gentleman’s remarks were not altogether adjacent.
With your guidance, Mr Speaker, which I always take very seriously, I will move directly to Lords amendments 78 and 79.
The Lords amendments would give the civil servants in the MOD fire and police services a normal pension age of 60 in the new schemes. The Government do not believe that this is the correct way forward.
As I make progress and explain the Government’s position, I will come to that point.
The Government do not believe the amendments to be the correct way forward, either for the taxpayer or the forces themselves. I will briefly set out some of the key reasons for our position. Allow me first, however, to reassure both hon. Members and the work forces themselves that the Government understand their concerns. We have listened to the representations and reflected on the discussions in another place, and I want to make it absolutely clear that we recognise the unique position of these work forces and the important role that the defence fire and rescue service and the Ministry of Defence police play.
My colleague Lord Newby met DFRS and MDP officers to talk through their experiences on the ground and the demands of their roles. There is no doubt that these public services deliver a valuable service to the armed forces and the country more generally. The nature of the work they are called on to deliver is often very difficult and at times can be dangerous. On occasion, some members of these work forces might find themselves putting their lives at risk. No one in the House is suggesting otherwise, so let us not be distracted from this important discussion by cherry-picking anecdotes and citing emotive examples of the work involved, because that is not the issue being discussed today.
Like many people, I have met representatives of workers in the MOD scheme, and they have referred me to Lord Hutton’s comments that he was not aware of the anomaly and therefore did not address it in his report, but that he was sympathetic. I have seen both sides of the argument. Our noble friend Lord Newby said that he would reflect on the debate in the Lords. Have there been any further conversations with Lord Hutton? In general, my understanding is that the Government are seeking to implement Lord Hutton’s recommendations, but this issue has clearly slipped through the net.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise Lord Hutton’s contribution to these pension reforms. He has done an excellent job overall, which the Government, including me, have put on record a number of times, although I am happy to do so again today. As my right hon. Friend says, Lord Hutton made clear his views on this issue in the debate in the other place. Since then Lord Newby has engaged with a number of stakeholders. I will provide a further update on that as I progress.
“fundamentally alter the status of these individuals and that should not be carried out lightly.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 571, c. 743.]
How does the Minister respond to those points and will he say what those alterations would be?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that the general pension reforms in this Bill should not be carried out lightly. As I progress and we have this debate, I hope he will be reassured that the Government have taken this issue seriously and will set out their case carefully.
The issue at hand is the appropriate treatment of those work forces’ pensions. The amendments would actively reduce the normal pension age for individuals joining them. It would not be a minor reduction, but a reduction of five years from the pension age put in place for those work forces by the Labour Government in 2007. It would also be a reduction of seven years from the pension age that they would otherwise see when the new scheme comes into force in 2015. That approach would run counter to the need to control the risks associated with increased longevity, which all parties agree must be addressed. I believe that all parties in this House support the aim of controlling those risks. The amendments would make those work forces unique in the public sector, with their pension age falling at a time when everyone else’s is rising.
In response to the issue being highlighted, the Government have taken measured and appropriate action. Rather than making a knee-jerk response to fit with the legislative time scale of the Public Service Pensions Bill, the Ministry of Defence has written to the forces. Its letter states that the MOD is willing to consider how the current pension age of 65 might be maintained for those individuals when the new pension schemes are introduced in 2015. I believe that is a reasonable offer by the Government, and we will of course stand by it. It is our duty as parliamentarians to look at the whole picture. Pensions are only one part of the remuneration and employment package of those work forces.
To be clear, what I have said is that the Ministry of Defence is willing to consider keeping the age at 65. It has not yet made that decision, which would require further engagement, although it has set out how it intends to engage. As I think my hon. Friend knows, under these proposals the answer to his question about a police officer would be 60, as opposed to 65 for civil servant pension schemes.
When the Minister complains that agreeing to these Lords amendments would create a unique circumstance, is he not really admitting that the unique characteristic of this particular class of MOD firefighter and MOD police officer is that they are the outliers? They are the only ones who will have to work all those extra years, whereas other police officers and firefighters in comparable roles will retire at 60. That is essentially what he is saying.
During the Bill’s passage through Parliament, the Opposition spokesman has raised mostly constructive issues and, as we shall see during this debate, the Government have accepted many of them. This is one issue, however, on which he and his party have little credibility. He says that the current retirement age for MOD police and fire service workers is higher than that of their civilian counterparts, but that situation was created by the Government whom he supported, so he really does not have much credibility on the issue.
I was not part of the Government at that time, but the key point is that, as he knows and as we have heard throughout the debates that have been quoted in interventions today, even Lord Hutton did not spot this anomaly. Lord Hutton says that, if he had known about it, he would of course have corrected it and aligned the MOD firefighters with all the other firefighters. I am prepared to say that the last Government overlooked this issue; it was an error. It was a mistake, and we should be big enough to admit that. Is the Minister now big enough to throw away his Treasury brief, which simply tells him to resist all changes, and to act for himself and do the right thing by treating all firefighters the same?
I am very comfortable that the Government are doing the right thing by resisting the amendments. As the debate progresses, I hope that more hon. Members will be persuaded that we have taken the right approach to this complex issue. I shall explain further as the debate progresses.
The hon. Gentleman is asking those questions for all the right reasons. I still have a few more minutes in which to set out the Government’s case, and
I hope that I shall answer them in the process. If anything remains unclear, however, I hope that he will come back to me. I will be happy to add to the information that I am giving the House.
Labour has accepted that it completely forgot about those workers when it was in government. Its spokesman has been noble enough to admit that it did not find the 350 people in the fire service and 3,000 people in the military police. Given that my hon. Friend the Minister now understands that fact, can he tell me why the workers did not bring the issue to the attention of the then Government? Were the unions involved in any negotiations at the time, or has this just become an issue now?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. I cannot answer on behalf of the previous Government, but I can say that the change was carried out by ministerial order. There was no open, ongoing debate on the matter like the one we are having today. A written ministerial statement was issued by the then Minister for the East Midlands, Gillian Merron, on
We all know that my hon. Friend is an assiduous Member of Parliament, and that he reviews all legislation carefully. I thank him for making that point. He will no doubt have looked at these matters closely at the time, and I welcome his looking at the legislation today.
The party political spat is incredibly interesting to observers—and the employees are the people who count most here. Will the Minister set out for me—he has been able to travel some way in his contributions to date—where the terms and conditions of employment set for Ministry of Defence personnel are materially and significantly different from those of ordinary Home Office fire services and police officers across the rest of the UK? If he set that out clearly, it might help me to come over to his side on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman may already know that MOD fire workers and police are classed as part of the civil service and, as such, are part of the principal civil service pension scheme. That is why the changes I referred to, which were made by the then Government back in 2007, affected those employees. As I plough on through my speech, I hope I will be able to answer some of his concerns.
I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way again. It is the material condition of their work that counts. What is significantly different between an officer who dons a hat with an MOD badge putting out a fire and one who does so but dons a hat with his regional service cap? I simply do not get it, and I think that many Members do not get it either, while those who do not get it the most are the fire service men.
Clearly, there is some difference in the roles they carry out, but I readily accept that the physical attributes required and the difficulty of the job are similar in each case. That is why I said at the outset that there is no point in trying to debate the difficulties, for example, of one job in the civil fire service in comparison with those in the MOD fire service, but significant differences have developed over time between the pay and conditions, including the pensions, of the civil and the MOD work forces. The hon. Gentleman will see, as I have outlined, that the MOD has committed to consider the issue. My main point is that this Bill deals with approximately 12 million employees and their pensions in the public sector, and that this is not the right occasion for looking at individual terms and conditions in each scheme for each particular work force. There is a time and a place for that—but it is not the debate on this Bill. I do not believe that it is the job of Members here or in the other place to look at the individual terms of each scheme. Rather, we should ensure that the Bill we pass has sufficient flexibilities to ensure that if the NPAs—normal pension ages—or other terms and conditions in the pensions for particular work forces need to be changed at some point in the future, that can be accommodated.
I can tell the hon. Lady that I am not the only Minister in the Treasury working on this issue, as there is a whole team of Ministers, including my noble Friend Lord Newby. Treasury Ministers have had meetings with representatives of the respective work forces and other stakeholders. I would like to plough on—
I promise that I will in a few moments.
It is our duty as parliamentarians to look at the whole picture of pensions, which are only one part of the remuneration and employment packages for these particular work forces. We should not simplify the issue by making stark comparisons out of context. Simply comparing these forces to their local authority counterparts achieves no useful purpose beyond critical grandstanding. Differences between these forces’ terms of employment are of long standing. If these issues are to be reopened, they should be considered in the round, with proper consultation between employer and employees.
As well as having different retirement ages from local authority, fire and police personnel, the MOD employees have different contribution rates and levels of pay. Unlike their local authority counterparts, they also have access to benefits such as the civil service compensation scheme. To pluck out their pensions from the wider package would be short-sighted, and potentially damaging to the efforts of both employers and employees to get the package right.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous.
We are not just legislating on people’s terms and conditions, and it is important for us not to legislate and get it wrong. What about people’s capability to do the job? Are people over 60 expected to go into a burning building in the same way as they did when they were 26? John Hutton clearly does not think that they should do so if they work for a local authority, and the same should apply in this context. We should think not only about the person who is running into the building, but about the person who is inside waiting for him. That is why the Minister should change his mind.
The hon. Gentleman has made a good point, and made it well. It is important to consider the capability of each work force, especially in view of increased longevity, and to ensure that the retirement age is appropriate. That is what I expect the MOD to do, and that is what it is doing, but it should do it in the context of the particular scheme for each work force, rather than by becoming involved in the details of each work force that are affected by the broad changes introduced by the Bill.
We have a responsibility to look rationally at the costs of the proposed changes. The additional costs may appear small in comparison with the savings that the Government are making through their overall programme of pension reforms, but the Government consider them to be both unnecessary and significant. They are unnecessary because those concerned will continue to have access to the civil service pension scheme, which is an excellent scheme that many in the private sector, including those doing the most arduous or specialist work, would envy. They are significant because some early indications suggest that they could be as high as £10 million a year for the lifetime of the schemes. This expenditure would take money away from front-line servicemen and women, and from other important defence priorities.
Those who support the amendments may believe that the members should pay the cost of the reduced retirement age themselves. That would imply increased employee contributions and a potential average take-home pay cut of over 8%—although it would depend on the exact terms—which might not necessarily be welcomed by members of the forces.
As politicians, we should not be trying to set the fine detail of public servants' pension schemes on the Floor of the House. Rushing at it might lead to mistakes. As I hope I have made clear, I acknowledge that the issue deserves further consideration allowing time for discussions between employer and employee. We owe it to the DFRS and the MDP to get this right.
What the Minister has just said is very helpful, provided that the Treasury too will be helpful if the negotiations between the unions and the MOD produce a different package. I understand the financial point, and I also understand that this is not just about retirement ages but about all the other benefits, which may be better than they are under the present arrangement. Can the Minister confirm that, if the MOD picks up the baton, the Treasury will not walk away and say “Nothing to do with us, guv”, but will continue to take an interest in the resolution of this outstanding bit of business?
What I can confirm is that the Treasury and the MOD are in exactly the same place. The MOD agrees with the terms that I am presenting today, and, as I have said, has made it clear that it will think about the issue. It has already written about it to members of the forces, as I would expect it to do in its capacity as the employer of these vital groups of workers.
The Government have not dismissed the claims of the DFRS or the MDP; far from it. The MOD has acknowledged in writing that there is a case for looking at their pension age to check that it is still appropriate.
Finally, there is a technical reason why the Government cannot accept these amendments as they currently stand. They would—unintentionally, I assume—confer powers on the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to make schemes for these civil servants. That would give new functions to devolved Administrations, without any proper consultation or consideration of whether that is the appropriate framework for managing the interests of these specialised work forces.
In summary, this is a complicated and inevitably emotive issue, and one that we have discussed at some length. I am sure I will not have persuaded all Members present today.
The Minister has made two clear points: this issue has not been resolved and needs to be resolved; and there is an issue to do with the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments. Therefore, is not the genuine thing to do to withdraw the Bill today, until those points can be put right?
I have to disagree. Of course that is not the right thing to do. This Bill is about 12 million workers in the public sector and their pensions, and about the settlement between those employees, their employers and the taxpayer, and it is vital that we make this reform so we can get the public finances on a sounder footing. I think the hon. Gentleman knows that, but I do not blame him for trying.
I hope hon. Members at least understand why we are taking this position on these amendments. I have explained why we have to resist the amendments, citing the financial privileges of this House on this occasion. I therefore urge hon. Members to disagree with this group of amendments.
Although the Minister had quite a long preamble, not necessarily on these amendments, all I would say is that, clearly, with life expectancies increasing, it is in general reasonable to ask people to work for longer before retirement. There is no disagreement on that general principle. We need to adjust the public service pension schemes so that they remain sustainable, which is why we support so many of the changes Lord Hutton recommended. However, as hon. Members know, there are certain categories of workers for whom having longer careers is not realistic because of the physical demands of their professions. There are some physical tasks that it is not reasonable to expect a 67 or 68-year-old to undertake.
The Bill acknowledges that in part, by excluding three categories of worker— firefighters, police officers and members of the armed forces—and fixing their normal pension age at 60. That is a rational position, but there are other professions that we believe the Government should keep under review because they also can be exceptionally physically demanding, such as NHS paramedics and care workers. There is clearly a need for some flexibility to accommodate scheme-specific capability reviews for these associated professions, and it is a great shame that the Government have not allowed the latitude for that in the Bill. We debated that in Committee.
Lords amendments 78 and 79 are aimed at correcting what most people thought to be an oversight: the fact that, for some bizarre reason, Ministry of Defence firefighters and MOD police officers are excluded from the definitions of firefighters and police officers in the Bill. There are about 2,000 MOD police and 1,000 or so MOD fire and rescue scheme workers who essentially carry out the same crucial, but onerous, tasks as police and fire service workers under the auspices of the police authorities and the Home Office.
In addition to the point the hon. Gentleman has just made, does he agree that, particularly with regard to Faslane and the nuclear submarines and installations there, MOD firefighers and police officers carry out duties that the civilian police and firefighters do not have to do?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because I think that is indeed the case, but my general point is about the physical demands on these individuals. Today we are debating whether their retirement age should be, as the Minister thinks, 67 or above, or whether it should be at 60—the same age as for other firefighters, police officers and members of the armed forces. It is a simple proposition and the House has the power to make a judgment on it today.
The hon. Gentleman makes the case on physicality for those three classes of public sector employees, but the crucial issue is that those people put their lives at risk, which other public sector workers do not. Can he advise the House why the issue was not raised, and why those people were missed, in earlier pension scheme reforms?
That is a very pertinent question. We heard from the Minister that 12 million people were affected by the various public service and civil service pension schemes. We heard that even Lord Hutton, in his detailed inquiry, was not aware of the 350 or so affected individuals, because it was a new scheme that started in 2007, and only some MOD firefighters and police will come into the age bracket. Given the complexity of pensions, it is not surprising that some issues were not spotted; apparently even some employee representatives and others were not aware of the anomaly at the time.
These things happen. Mistakes can be made, but it is really important that when a mistake is pointed out, people assess whether they are big enough to accept that it needs to be corrected and justice is done, or whether their pride is such—whether or not this applies to the civil service—that they try to retrofit their arguments to justify a clearly unjustifiable anomaly. That is what the question boils down to.
The only reason I can see for different treatment for those groups is that one set happens to be employed by the Ministry of Defence and the other is in the public service at large. It is such an evident anomaly that the House of Lords, when made aware of the lacuna, correctly sought to repair the fault in the Bill, but incredibly we heard from the Economic Secretary—I am delighted that he has been joined by the Chief Secretary; perhaps he can be lent on by more enlightened colleagues—[Interruption.] Sir Bob Russell says he will have a go, but he does not have much time as the question will be put shortly. [Interruption.] Anyway, Ministers are not particularly interested in listening to the debate, so it might be useful if the hon. Gentleman could text the Economic Secretary to suggest that he pays attention.
In essence, the Economic Secretary said that the Government were too proud to admit that they had got it wrong. They are still defending the indefensible, but the arguments for admitting the error are overwhelming.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that if the Government do not accept some of the changes, some people—albeit a small number—who cannot carry out normal duties will be unable to do the job for which they are being paid? Therefore fewer people will be able to fight fires or to respond in the most physical of circumstances. How does my hon. Friend see the future for those employees?
Quite a few of those employees already retire before the normal retirement age because of issues of physicality—the sheer effort involved in undertaking such physical tasks. It is entirely unreasonable and unfair that there is such a discrepancy between public service workers who carry out the same job. They are all called on to put their lives on the line. The burden of justifying the anomaly now rests with the Government, but other than some rather unconvincing arguments, which the Minister barely touched on, they have failed to discharge their burden and to illustrate why MOD firefighters and police are so different. The Minister took interventions from many colleagues and on a number of occasions he said, “Oh well, I’ll come to it in my speech,” but amazingly he never did.
Given that neither the Labour Government nor Lord Hutton spotted the issue, and it has now been raised with this Government, does the hon. Gentleman not think that a reasonable way forward is what the Minister suggested at the end of his speech? We should allow the MOD and the unions to see if they can negotiate a proposal that could be implemented under the broad remit of the Bill. That must be the reasonable, sensible, grown-up way forward.
At this eleventh hour, no, because the issue has been familiar to the Government for many months. The Minister said that there was not even a proposal on the table. We are able to judge, as Lord Hutton was able to judge, as suggested by the quotes from the House of Lords debate, the definitions of firefighter, police officer and armed forces, for whom the Bill categorically specifies the normal pension age as 60. The right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that some sort of negotiation is needed about whether those individuals are indeed firefighters or police officers of the same class. I disagree with him, if he is naive enough to think that the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence do not need to be pushed on the issue. Today is the opportunity to vote on it. I know he will listen to the debate and I hope he will vote in the right way and not try to find some excuse for kicking the issue into the long grass, hoping that people will forget about it yet again. We have the opportunity to deal with it now. Let us have a bit of gumption and deal with it in the way that we can do.
May I tell the hon. Gentleman respectfully why I disagree with that? This is not just about age. It is about a whole package of benefits, some of which are much more advantageous to people in the civil service than they would be to someone in a parallel position in local government. I am not in a position, and even those on the Labour Benches who represent unions are not in a position, to do a deal here on their behalf. If Government are committed to a deal being done, it must be right to remit the issue to the employer and the unions to negotiate an outcome.
I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman’s true colours have come through in that way. He is clearly not going to support the move to reduce the retirement age to 60. He should, and I will tell him why. The key question was put by Lord Eatwell in the other place, who asked about the different treatment and whether the Government could justify it. He asked:
“In what way is it less onerous, when they”— that is, the MOD firefighters—
“have to work on military establishments”— as Sir Bob Russell said—
“dealing on occasion with extremely dangerous materials, and occasionally also in war zones? How is their job less onerous?”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 568.]
Unfortunately, my noble Friend did not receive a satisfactory answer to the question, so I repeat it now to the Minister: what reason is there for that different treatment? Do not Ministry of Defence police officers have to stay fit, remain physically alert and intervene in events of great physical danger? Do not Ministry of Defence firefighters have to be ready to run the gauntlet, endure the exertions of search and rescue in extreme circumstances, take intense risks, prove their stamina and make sure that they can rise to the most testing of circumstances? The arguments that justify excluding the police and fire and rescue workers from the link between state pension age and normal pension age apply equally to the MOD police and the MOD firefighters. Just because they are a tiny number of workers should not mean that Ministers can just turn a blind eye and ignore the issue. We cannot allow it to be swept under the carpet. There is no reason for the difference, and the Government have no justification for opposing the amendments.
This is a difficult amendment owing to its emotive nature, with a small number of people feeling almost as though they have been victimised. If the Government reject the amendment, can the hon. Gentleman offer those workers some hope that if Labour formed a Government in 2015, it would do as the Lords amendments say?
I am amazed that hon. Members who are in government refuse to take responsibility for the offices that they hold and for the decisions that they have in their grasp. I said that it is important to admit that a mistake has been made for these 350-odd MOD firefighters and police. Why on earth cannot Members on the Government Benches say the same? [Interruption.] If the Minister wishes to correct me, I shall be delighted to hear.
How much more of an answer can I give than the actions that we will take in the Division Lobby today? Instead of the party political games that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are playing today, it is a responsible thing to do to try to help—[Interruption.] They laugh, but this is not a laughing matter. They expect these firefighters and police officers to work up to the age of 67 or above, and that is not the right thing to do.
I have given way enough to Conservative Members and I want to make some progress because it is important to bottom out these specious arguments that the Minister can barely grasp.
Lord Hutton said that the reasons for giving uniformed forces a lower normal pension age is the
“simple argument that the nature of their service is unique and should be reflected in the pension arrangements that we make for them. ”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 520.]
In his report he recommended that the Government set a new normal pension age of 60 across the “uniformed services”. That was the phrase that he used. He did not refer to the type of pension they were in; instead he referred to “uniformed services”, and argued that they deserved to be singled out because of the nature of their work. The spirit of Lord Hutton’s recommendation clearly applies to MOD firefighters and police officers. Lord Hutton said:
“The nature of the work the uniformed services perform is unique and this needs to be reflected in their Normal Pension Ages. The modernised firefighters scheme has struck a balance between recognising these changes in life expectancy, but also recognising the unique nature of the service provided by scheme members. The Commission’s view is that the Normal Pension Age in this scheme, 60, should be seen as setting a benchmark for the uniformed services as a whole.”
We agree with Lord Hutton’s reasoning that the amendment was merely intended to correct an oversight that has occurred in drawing up the Bill. He supports the amendment and the reform is based on his idea. He said that
“if, during the course of my inquiry, I had known about the unique circumstances of the MOD firefighters, I would have referred specifically to them in my report…Sadly, this issue was not drawn to my attention, so it did not make any specific recommendations about the MOD firefighters or the MOD police. If I had known about it, I certainly would have done so.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 570.]
It is important to mention this. We are towards the end of the Bill’s passage and we have not had much opportunity to debate it. This has been brought to my attention during the course of turning the pages on the detail of this pension legislation. The Opposition say the same as Lord Hutton. This is just one of those anomalies that we should be big enough to admit was wrongly overlooked in previous reforms.
It is true that the last Government raised the normal pension age for the civil service to 65 for post-2007 entrants, and that included Ministry of Defence staff. However, I am now convinced that had we known then about the small group of firefighters and police officers who are technically on the civil service payroll rather than employed by police or fire authorities, we would have taken account of these groups, and an exception could have been carved out. There should be no embarrassment inside the Treasury in admitting that this was an oversight. Regarding this previous change, even the Defence Police Federation said that the
The issue was not raised or considered when it should have been. Those staff should not be punished because of that particular oversight. If Lord Hutton is able to admit the oversight and if Opposition Members in this Chamber are able to admit the oversight, the Economic Secretary should be big enough now to do the same. Rather than just read out the brief provided to him, he should engage his brain, use his own judgment and discretion, and do the right thing. If he engaged the brain of the Chief Secretary, who is sitting alongside him, that might go some way towards a solution.
There is the cost to the public purse argument, but as I understand it, only 56 people have joined the Ministry of Defence police, and fewer than 300 have joined the defence fire and rescue service since 2007. So the anomaly could be easily corrected by bringing a small minority of pensioners back into line with the pre-2007 entrants’ normal pension age of 60. We are not talking about a large number of firefighters or police officers here. Sadly, we have had to get to the Floor of the House of Commons to put the pressure on the Government. What the Government have tried to present as a cost is in reality a reduction in the predicted saving from this overall package of changes. They overestimated the savings to be made by overlooking the existence of this particular group of fire and police officers and failed to include them in the definition of uniformed services.
The Minister might put up various arguments, but the question of physical burden cannot be overlooked. A worker for the Ministry of Defence police may be required to wear 11 stone-worth of kit, and a normal shift will involve wearing 5 or 6 stone-worth of equipment for up to 11 hours. Workers in the Ministry of Defence fire service carry out the already difficult and dangerous job of firefighters, but do so in war zones and other extremely hazardous conditions around the world.
The fact that these workers are labelled civil servants should not blind us to the reality of what their jobs entail. Along with the police and the armed forces, they are the only public service workers who have to undergo regular fitness tests. In fact, the majority retire before 60 because they are unable to meet the high demands their jobs entail. They are also recognised as uniformed forces in the civil service pension scheme, and there is a small reflection of that already. Unlike civilian police forces, there is no option in the MOD police for officers to move to unarmed work if they struggle to cope physically. Even when mainstream police officers are armed, they are not expected routinely to carry guns around beyond the age of 55.
Another point that has been brought to my attention today—I imagine that this is something none of us is massively familiar with—is that many MOD firefighters have to work alongside colleagues who will qualify for retirement at 60. Royal Air Force firefighters—I think that they are called Trade Group 8—will often be on similar operations with service colleagues, working in the field together. One colleague will retire at 60, whereas another standing next to him will be required to work to 65, 66, 67 or beyond. The same applies for Royal Navy firefighters, who are regarded in their classification as armed forces. This is riddled with anomalies, and it would be very simple for Ministers to overcome them. They really ought not to have allowed this to become such a large point of debate.
It should also be pointed out that many of those personnel also serve in war zones, are deployed overseas and have been decorated for their service, which I think sets them apart, with regard to the changes that the Government are refusing to make.
Absolutely. Sadly, there is also an argument that the Government, by holding out in this way, are letting down those serving in our armed forces. They are giving the impression that they think they can sweep the issue under the carpet and let it ride. There are already concerns that they might be increasing the risk to national security by cutting the number of MOD police officers—from 3,600 to 2,400 by April 2016—and in many ways a feeling of betrayal is starting to accumulate.
This matter might be an irritant for the Minister, whom we know is looking for a pat on the head from his betters higher up the food chain, but it would be nice if he, rather than trying to deliver a neat and perfect Bill with no loose ends by resisting any issues that annoyingly come up in the course of debate, used his position to take account of the important questions that come up.
I have encountered a number of such issues in my time at the Opposition Dispatch Box and as a Minister, and it is quite plain that at some point in the next few weeks Ministers will have to put their hands up and admit that they will back down. It would be far neater and quicker, and to the Minister’s credit, if he said so now.
This matter needs to be resolved. Telling MOD firefighters and police officers to stop rocking the boat and to accept a half-baked assurance that the Government might enter into some negotiations on whether the pension age should be 65 gives them no way to protect their situation beyond the short duration of the Minister’s tenure in office. We need to correct that glaring error in the Bill. I commend Lords amendments 78 and 79 and urge the House not to disagree with them.
I am disappointed that the Government have not accepted Lords amendments 78 and 79. I support the rest of the Bill, which I think contains good proposals for tackling the issue of people living longer, but I think that that one part is an anomaly and an oversight, as Lord Hutton has admitted. It will leave MOD police and fire personnel in an anomalous position as the only uniformed personnel who will not retire at 60.
Many of my constituents who work as police and firefighters at Faslane and Coulport will be affected. As has been said, their counterparts in local authority fire services and other police forces will retire at 60, and I believe that they, not other civil servants, are the correct comparison for defence police and firefighters.
I am pleased that the Government have moved from their starting position of retiring at the state pension age, which will rise to 68 eventually, and have proposed a retirement age of 65, but that still means that 65-year-olds will have to fight fires or tackle terrorists, and I simply do not think that that is sensible.
Today has been historic, because the Labour party has admitted that it made a mistake when in government. I hope it will make similar admissions in future. The 2007 decision to increase the retirement age to 65 for new recruits was imposed on the unions without any negotiation and it was a mistake.
The Government have faithfully implemented Lord Hutton’s recommendations, one of which was that those in occupations for which the normal pension age was under 60 should retire at 60. This applies to the other uniformed services: police, fire and the armed forces. However, Lord Hutton has subsequently said that he was not aware of the unique circumstances of defence police and firefighters, and that if he had been he would have recommended that they be treated the same as other uniformed services, with a retirement age of 60. I would have hoped that the Government had taken on board Lord Hutton’s admission that he made a mistake.
The number of personnel involved is very small—fewer than 5,000 in total out of a civil service work force of about 700,000. Defence police and firefighters do a vital job. It involves putting themselves in dangerous situations and requires a very high level of fitness. Fighting a fire on a vessel at sea requires an extremely high level of fitness. The same is true of police officers who have to wear body armour and carry a heavy weapon.
Like all other uniformed services, defence firefighters and police have to be ready to go instantly from a state of rest to 100% alertness and very high physical exertion. That puts a heavy strain on the body and, as someone nearing 60 myself, I know we all have to accept that age takes its toll on us. What makes the uniformed services different is the need to go to a 100% level of alertness and effort. Many other manual jobs involve hard work, but it is done at a steady state for several hours, whereas the uniformed services have to go to their 100% physical and mental peak at once, and I think that that top level of fitness decays once we are over 60. A report produced for the Ministry of Defence by Dr P. Griffin, a civilian consultant adviser in occupational medicine, makes clear that a person’s ability to function with peak physical and mental alertness declines once they get over 60. That has to be taken into account.
Defence police and firefighters have to undertake regular fitness checks and demonstrate a high degree of fitness. I am concerned that if they have to work beyond 60, many of them will fail these tests before they reach retirement age. Having a high proportion of personnel retire early on health grounds is no way to manage vital services such as policing and firefighting. That is why I believe that the cost of reducing the retirement age to 60 will not necessarily be as large as the figure the Minister has been given by his civil servants. I suspect that a large number of personnel will retire on health grounds before they are 65. Although reducing the retirement age will cost the Government money, I do not think that the cost is as great as it may appear.
The anomaly of defence police and firefighters retiring at state pension age while other police and fire personnel retire at 60 has arisen because defence police and firefighters have been classed as civil servants. The correct comparison is with local authority firefighters and other police services.
The Government inherited a plethora of public service schemes with different rules and regulations, and have done a very good job of rationalising them. However, if Lords amendments 78 and 79 are not accepted, it will leave the defence police and fire services in the anomalous position of being the only uniformed services that have to work beyond 60.
I agree that the pension rules are immaterial to their ability to carry out the job. That is the point that I am trying to make. The work of the uniformed services is unique because it involves short bursts of high physical effort and mental alertness. That is what makes these jobs different and why I do not believe it makes sense for them to have to carry on beyond 60.
There should be a simple rule for retirement age. The uniformed services should retire at 60 and other people should retire at the state pension age. If the Lords amendments were accepted, that principle would be implemented. Defence police and firefighters, like other uniformed services, are highly trained and their job puts them in dangerous situations and requires a high degree of fitness.
I hope that the Government will reflect and agree—if not today, then at some point in the future—that people in these occupations can retire at 60.
Ever since this Government took office there has been an attack on public sector pensions. Throughout the debates on public sector pensions, they have ignored the advice of the members of the schemes, the trade unions and the organisations that represent the members. They have torn up long-held agreements, reduced payouts, increased the length of time that people have to pay in and increased the level of contributions.
Many of the Government’s arguments have been based on the work of John Hutton. They have said to Labour Members: “Not us, guv! Your man gave us the template and we’re following his work.” Why on earth are they ignoring John Hutton now? Is it because they have an in-built anti-public sector dogma? Do they want to pull down public sector workers whenever they have the chance to get away with it? Is it because—I think this is the main reason, because the Treasury’s fingerprints are all over this—they are driven by the dogma of a failed Chancellor, who wants to save money in any way that he can because his plan A has failed miserably and the economy of this country has not just stagnated, but has stalled and gone backwards?
John Hutton has said clearly that he made a mistake. My hon. Friend Chris Leslie quoted him. He said that he had missed this point, that he had made an error, and that if he had known about it, he would have addressed it at the time. At the end of his speech, John Hutton said:
“It is incumbent on us to address that issue and not to use the technical arguments as an excuse for not addressing this fundamental discrepancy.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 570.]
A discrepancy is what this is. It is not a huge issue of principle. It is something that was missed by the people who were advising John Hutton, including the trade unions. It was also missed six or seven years ago when we changed the rules. Back Benchers like me should have raised it with our Government. Opposition Members at that time, including Liberal Democrat Members, should have raised it. However, we did not raise it, the trade unions did not raise it and the civil servants who were giving the advice at the time did not raise it, and it went through.
It could be put right now. As John Hutton said, it is a fundamental error. If it is not put right now, is it just because the Government are being contradictory, given that they have argued at every other time that we should follow John Hutton’s template, or because they are being cynically hypocritical? We could put it right, and we could do it now.
It is nonsense to say that the workers in question are somehow civil servants first and police officers or firefighters second. When they run into a building, they do not think, “I’m a civil servant”, they think, “I’m the man who’s going in to sort out a terrorist or to try to rescue somebody from a fire.” I said before that there is no difference between them and a police officer or firefighter working for a local authority, but at times there is, because sometimes they run into buildings where there are things like nuclear weapons, explosives or somebody waiting for them with a shotgun, a machine gun, a hand grenade or other explosive device. The physical and mental intensity and the pressure on them is huge, and that should be represented in the Bill.
The argument that people in different pension schemes cannot be on different terms and conditions is nonsense. For years in the national health service, we allowed mental health nurses to retire at 55, or if they chose to carry on working, their pension was guaranteed at that age, because of the nature of their work. It was about the intensity of going to work every day and grappling with some of the most disturbed people in society. That was the right thing to do then, and it is the right thing to do today.
We all saw what happened 30 years ago, when Margaret Thatcher’s Government reduced the retirement age for coal miners first to 62 and then to 60. They did so for the right reason—they realised that people in that industry were a special case and deserved to be seen in that way. At the time of the reduction, in 1980, the life expectancy of a miner was 65 years and two days, so they got their pension for two days. Because of the change in the law, they got the chance to get their pension for up to five years longer, and that was the right thing to do. It is clear to me that the change in the Bill is nothing other than an attempt to escape from the need to pay people what they are entitled to.
I agree entirely, as somebody who is facing his 60th birthday—it comes up like an express train. I was a care worker, and I would hate to think that I would still be caring for people at my age, and in the physical shape that I am in at the moment. I would guess that the people I would be caring for might share that view.
The Minister says that there will be negotiations and discussions, but if there is to be a serious discussion, a job evaluation scheme needs to be put in place to see who a worker should be compared with. So far, the people in question are being compared with other civil servants. Should somebody carrying backpacks and armour be compared with somebody working in an office? Of course not. They should be compared with people who are out there doing a similar job for a different organisation. That would lead to exactly the conclusion that John Hutton has now come to. That is why we should support the Lords amendments and the Minister should have the good grace to accept them. They would get him off the hook.
The Lords amendments are great, and I would like to be able to accept them, but I have some concerns about them. Members of all parties are concerned about the emotive nature of the Bill’s effects on a small group of people. I would like to put it on record that I am proud of the public sector. Many members of my family work in it, and they show great commitment to the services in which they work on a day-to-day basis. Some of them risk their lives, and others almost risk their lives teaching very small children—I would much rather address the House than a classroom of 30 primary school children.
The work of Ministry of Defence police and firefighters is incredibly important, and it would be disingenuous of Members to try to identify whether the job of one set of police officers in the Home Office is more dangerous than that of another set in the Ministry of Defence. Some police officers in the Home Office do a great deal of work in difficult circumstances in some of our areas on a Friday and Saturday night, and some have jobs that are predominantly focused around the desk and paperwork. Those jobs are also very important in the attempt to reduce crime and provide police intelligence.
As I said, this is an emotive issue, and the real problem is the knee-jerk reaction that we are seeing on the Floor of the House to the attempt to resolve it. The shadow Minister said honestly that a mistake was made in 2007 that went through by ministerial order. There was no debate in the Chamber on the retirement age of the forces in question being raised from 60 to 65. I understand, as Mr Anderson said, that some people of a particular size, weight and age would not be the best at resolving the problems we have in some of our towns and cities.
For the Ministry of Defence police and fire service—I believe that some MOD fire officers are in the Gallery watching the debate with great interest—my problem is not the cost; £10 million does not sound like much. It is a lot on an individual level, but for a Government with debts of more than £1 trillion—or moving that way—it does not seem a huge amount of money. I am concerned, however, about the emotive and knee-jerk reaction, because as the Minister set out clearly from the Dispatch Box, there are real differences in terms of employment.
If we accept the amendment and allow the retirement age to be changed from 65 to 60 so that people have the same terms and conditions as those in the Home Office police service and the fire service under some local authorities, my concern is that the Ministry of Defence fire and police service could miss out on some opportunities. Hon. Members, and in particular the shadow Minister, have said a number of times that we do not know enough about the specifics of the terms and conditions—the shadow Minister raised a number of points and mentioned things that have come to his attention only over the past few days.
The hon. Gentleman is fortunate—as are we all—to have been elected by his constituents to make decisions, and what could be simpler than this? Essentially it is about whether all firefighters and police officers, whoever their technical employer, should be able to retire at 60. The hon. Gentleman is flannelling around trying to find reasons not to do that, but in his heart of hearts he thinks they should retire at 60—does he not?
I genuinely believe that people should have the opportunity to make that decision and consult the Government and the trade unions. I do not want a broad-brush approach to this matter. It is not that I do not trust the shadow Minister, but he is trying to pull me into a political trap. I am not interested in politics in that sense; I am interested in representing my constituents and I do not want to accept an amendment that could technically make those fire and police officers worse off in the future. I would like to know far more about the details behind the amendment and what accepting it would mean.
The Minister mentioned a figure of around 8% that could be a reduction in net pay. If we accept such an amendment, and the mistake made by the previous Government in 2007 is reversed, I think we should negotiate with trade unions and fire and police officers so that we fully understand what its impact will be on their take-home salary at the end of each month, and how it will affect decisions in their careers and moving forward. I want everybody to have a fair opportunity, and as I have said, I am proud of the public sector and the work it does. Although the amendment seems fair, I do not feel that I can support it because of the broad-brush approach that could lead to MOD police officers and fire service personnel having a worse set of circumstances in a year or two, just so that party political points can be scored. Unfortunately, I will not be able to support the amendment, but I urge the Minister to provide us with more detail in his winding-up speech about how he will encourage the MOD to sit down with the unions and ensure that the pension age will not rise above 65, and that any decision on the pension age will be about 65 and downwards.
I wish to make a few brief points in support of Lords amendments 78 and 79, which seem eminently sensible and seek simply to bring the normal pension age for MOD police and defence fire and rescue personnel in line with arrangements for other fire and police personnel who do broadly similar jobs. As others have pointed out, when the amendments were first debated in the other place, Lord Hutton seems to have acknowledged that the omission of MOD police and firefighters from his original considerations was an oversight. I agree wholeheartedly with his remarks when he said:
“It is incumbent on us to address that issue and not to use the technical arguments as an excuse for not addressing this fundamental discrepancy.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 570.]
I support the Lords amendments because MOD police and firefighting officers need consistent treatment with other police and firefighters.
Lord Hutton’s conclusion in recommendation 14 of his report was by no means arbitrary. In recommending a normal pension age of 60 for uniformed services personnel, the Hutton report drew on a wide evidence base. It recognised that the nature of the job places intense physical demands on officers and requires them to maintain levels of health and fitness that are not necessary in other day-to-day jobs. That acknowledgment has underpinned the design of terms and conditions for police and firefighters for many years, and remains as pertinent and relevant as it ever was, even if the age at which those personnel will be eligible for retirement has shifted.
It is useful to remember that changing demographics and increases in life expectancy have underpinned the process of pension reform. However, although life expectancy has increased significantly in recent decades, the increase in healthy life expectancy has not kept pace. People are living longer, but they are more likely to live with debilitating health conditions or disabilities. I made general observations on that in earlier stages of the Bill, but it is particularly relevant to the uniformed services, because it is imperative that officers are physically capable of meeting the demands of the job. Hutton implicitly acknowledged that when he called for the increase in normal pension age for the uniformed services to be kept under regular review.
We must be realistic about the physical limitations of mere mortals. Hard physical work takes its toll on human bodies. It is clear that people who work in heavier, more demanding jobs suffer more physical strain as they get older. Like Mr Reid, I was struck by the briefing ahead of the debate from the Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation, which set out in some detail not only the physical demands placed on defence fire and rescue personnel, but the risks to officers, which increase with age—they rise exponentially for officers aged 50 and over. We must be realistic about what we ask people to do. We should not do the sums on paper without thinking of the real cost.
We need to be careful when we talk about the monetary cost. The Minister relied on the argument that the measure will cost too much, but we need to be careful if we assume that the higher pension age will save us money. All hon. Members know that staff retiring on health grounds can be an expensive business. It is all the more expensive when the reasons for a person leaving their job are linked to their occupation. That is an extremely expensive way to do things. We need to look at both sides of the balance sheet before we jump to the conclusion that treating MOD police and firefighters differently from other police and firefighters will save us money.
At the end of the day, this comes down to the fact that MOD police and the defence fire and rescue officers are, to all intents and purposes, uniformed service personnel. They need to be fit and strong, and physically and mentally capable of carrying out their duties in an emergency. We need to recognise that and treat them in exactly the same way—as far as possible—as we treat other police and firefighters.
Another important part of the context is that morale in those services has been put under considerable strain in recent times owing to changes to terms and conditions and proposed reductions to services. Like Sir Bob Russell, who intervened earlier, I have MOD police in my constituency—they look after the St Fergus gas terminal. I am therefore very much aware of the great uncertainty that has overshadowed the service because of MOD reviews. I am also aware that a proposed voluntary early release scheme, for which, I believe, 600 officers applied, has been subject to a rethink. I am glad that the MOD has recognised the folly of rushing in with ill-thought-through cuts, but officers who had applied for early release have been left in a kind of limbo. The service needs to ensure that younger officers come up through the ranks, but the uncertainties of the past few years have undermined morale and the good will of officers, who take substantial risks in their day-to-day working lives, and who we expect to be on the front line during any crisis.
That is why I do not have confidence in the solution set out by the Minister. I know that some of his Liberal Democrat colleagues in the coalition have accepted it—if I had not seen officers being mucked about by the MOD’s prevarication over the early release scheme,
I would have more confidence in the Government’s proposals. However, having witnessed that, and seeing that the issue is still unresolved, I really do not have that confidence. In that context, I would be keen to see the amendments go through as they are, and I urge Liberal Democrats to come through the Lobby and make their voices heard on behalf of their constituents.
I want to make it clear on the record that I believe the Government when they say that they want to keep the retirement age at 65, instead of increasing it progressively to 68 when the state pension age goes up. The Government have made that offer. My argument was that the retirement age should be 60, because of the decline in their physical ability to perform at peak fitness after that age.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Like me, he has constituents who have applied for the early release scheme and been mucked about. That is why we should settle the matter today on the Floor of the House, instead of allowing it to be sent off into the long grass where we can prevaricate some more before failing to reach the conclusion that people need to be treated with consistency.
The question of consistency underpins everything. There is recognition that other police and firefighters need a lower normal pension age than those in less physically demanding roles. People who do the same jobs, but for the MOD, need to be recognised in exactly the same way. I urge the Government to observe the spirit of the Hutton report, accept that this was an oversight, and do the right thing by our MOD police and firefighters by accepting the Lords amendments. I hope, even at this very late stage, that the Minister will capitulate.
It is regrettable that no Defence Minister is here, because we could be putting the cart before the horse. What is crucial is the fitness for the purpose for which our MOD firefighters and police are employed. That should be the first, driving principle, and then we can move on to retirement ages and pensions. Does the country really want its nuclear bases to be defended by people of my age? Is it really safe for someone of my age to put out a fire on a nuclear submarine? The clear answer is no. It is therefore regrettable that the MOD is not represented in this important debate. This debate must be important, because I have missed the welcome home parade of 4th Mechanised Brigade. As a member of the Defence Committee, I always wish to welcome home our troops. I hope the fact that I am here will be read as an indication of how seriously I take this debate.
“I do not believe that there is any substantive technical reason why we cannot look again at the role of the MoD firefighters and the MoD police.”
He went on to say:
“Surely there has to be a way of doing the right thing for these people.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 570.]
I came to this debate fully intending to vote in support of the Lords amendments, but their unintended consequences could well lead to our MOD firefighters and police being financially worse off, albeit while retiring at a younger age. I will therefore take the Minister at his word—he is a Minister whom I trust—and give the matter further consideration in the spirit and intention of what Lord Hutton has said.
Yes. As I understand it, the retirement age is one anomaly, but the contributions towards pension funds are another anomaly. To ask the House to have its cake and eat it might be asking for too much.
I do not believe that that is actually in the Bill. I do not believe that pension contributions will be affected, if the House votes to allow MOD police officers and firefighters to retire at 60. As we know—the hon. Gentleman and I represent some of these people—they want to be able to retire at 60.
The hon. Lady used the words, “I believe”, and although she may well be right, it is because of the uncertainty that I welcome the promise from the Minister, whom I must take at his word, to give this matter further consideration. It is worth taking that on board.
Well, the hon. Lady and I must beg to differ. I do not want her to think that her support for MOD firefighters and police officers is greater than mine. I was arguing in support of the MOD police when the previous Labour Government were cutting their numbers—so I can do without those sorts of comparisons.
I ask the Minister to give a categorical assurance on the concerns raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I particularly welcome the comments from the hon. Members for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes, who raised questions that have not yet been fully answered. My hon. Friend Mr Reid and the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) also raised concerns.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on this matter. I have had a chance to check the answer to the question from Gemma Doyle. If the amendment were accepted, it would immediately transfer the people in question out of the civil service definition. They would get the benefit of an earlier retirement age, but they would also get the disbenefit of other comparative advantages. That is why we need a negotiated conclusion, not one-line changes to the Bill.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. When I referred to the unintended consequences, I was not expecting a detailed exposé of what one of them would be.
With some reluctance, I am taking the Minister at his word about the unintended consequences, and I urge the House to do the same. I take on board everything that Lord Hutton has said subsequently about his not being aware of the issue. Trusting the Minister, I think that our MOD firefighters and police officers could conceivably end up better off. I repeat my basic point, however, because the MOD needs to move quickly to reassure the nation about our military depots and nuclear installations. I have seen Faslane at first hand, and we do not want a Dad’s Army—people my age—defending our nuclear installations or trying to put out fires in military establishments.
I welcome the new enthusiasm on both sides of the House for negotiating with trade unions. We have seen 18 months of industrial action followed by the imposition of a pensions settlement on a large number of civil service workers. I therefore welcome this enthusiasm for negotiating the issue out.
The Government’s policy on pensions was twofold: they wanted to bring together a consistent retirement age across the services, while, as part of public service reform, ensuring a process of modernisation, with retirement schemes reflecting the requirements of service delivery. From what we have received today, I think we are reintroducing an element of chaos into the retirement age. Far from ensuring consistency, we seem to be building anomaly upon anomaly. Far from pragmatically reflecting the reality of delivering a service, we are about to undermine another service.
On delivery, we should learn the lessons of 2007. I did not support the increase in the retirement age for firefighters in 2007, just as I have not supported this legislation. The lesson that the Fire Brigades Union taught us was that once we increase the retirement age in such a physically demanding job, apart from having a physical effect on those workers and their lives—and on their families, too—we do not save money, because people take ill-health retirement, as others have said. At the end of the day, this is not part of a modernisation process; it is a step backwards.
The other issue raised was consistency—this argument that there will be consistency across the uniformed services. However, that was never the case anyway, because we argued for the Prison Service and uniformed services in the health service to be included, but they were excluded. The issue of consistency is drawn even more sharply by the exclusion of the group of staff we are discussing in this debate, who are clearly part of a uniformed service. They are being discriminated against purely on the basis of who employs them. Firefighters who are employed by local government via a fire authority are within the scheme at age 60, whereas those employed by these other bodies are not. That is not just policy making on the hoof; to be frank, it is incompetent policy making.
As for the disbenefits, when a general agreement is taken into legislation in this way there is always the facility for the employer and others to adjust contribution rates, albeit as part of a negotiated settlement, but we usually legislate and then iron out the detail of the contribution rates, with the matter usually being resolved through an adjustment of the employer’s contribution.
Let me turn finally to the process. The Minister helpfully tried to respond, but there was insufficient detail. If there is to be negotiation on this issue, we need at least a commitment about the time scale. There has to be a limited time scale, over the next three months, in which we can resolve these anomalies and give this group of workers some security, because the current insecurity is causing concern.
Today we have at least set out the parameters of what the negotiations will be. The age of 60 has to be No. 1 on the agenda, followed by ironing out other anomalies. The second issue is the point I raised in an intervention on the Minister. We have to have a clear definition of the legislative process by which the negotiated settlement will be speedily agreed through the House. Will it be tacked on to other primary legislation or might there be a speedy regulation change that enables us to implement the process?
I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done. I share his view that it would be helpful if the Minister indicated in the winding-up speech that there will be a fixed timetable for concluding the process and that the age change from 65 to 60 would be on the agenda. If he can do that, I think that realistically, given that we are at the beginning of this financial year, that would be acceptable. I have not cleared that with the unions, but we need something that gives some parameters and the Minister would carry us with him if he set them.
To go back a bit, I would also like some clarity about the legislative process. The time scale for negotiations can be set and the agenda for those negotiations clarified; my anxiety is that if we do not have a commitment on the time scale for legislation, the issue could be kicked into the long grass or even further. That would be seen by the workers as an act of bad faith unless a clear timetable was also given for the legislative process.
That is all I am asking for: clarity of process and time scale. It would be extremely helpful, as an act of good will and good faith, for the Minister to take back a reference to this matter in the Queen’s Speech. That would indicate to those involved that the Government attach a priority to ironing out what has been accepted as an anomaly. It is one that might affect only a relatively small number, but it does so critically and in a critical service, as others have said.
It is customary to say what a pleasure it is to follow the previous speaker, and in this case it is a great pleasure to have listened to the contribution from John McDonnell. He asked precise questions and reinforced some of the points made by my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes in order to move forward what the Minister had said earlier. Thanks to those two contributions, we are beginning to get to the real meat of the issue of how we can ensure that this group of overlooked public sector workers can find an acceptable and fair outcome to their pension situation after all these years.
Within the overall ambit of the Bill, I speak as one who sits outside the cosy compromise between Government and Opposition Members on the principles set out by Lord Hutton. Our decisions on pensions must stand the test of time. People make decisions about contributions to their pensions based on the expectation that those contributions will have an effect 20 or 30 years later when they retire. My concern about the compromise relates to affordability, given that we are asking the taxpayer to foot the bill.
I want to draw the House’s attention to the specific costs involved in the measure. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the amount involved is £10 million per annum. I am a big admirer of my hon. Friend Stephen McPartland, but he said earlier that £10 million a year was not really a considerable amount of money. I believe, however, that it is indeed a considerable amount of money to be paid year on year. Under the previous Government, it was that attitude that £10 million here and £10 million there did not really matter that led to the grotesque financial situation that we found ourselves in in 2010.
The point I was making was that, although £10 million is a lot of money at a personal level, I do not feel that it should be a reason to allow such discrepancies to continue. The House should be trying to create parity between all those who do that difficult job on a daily basis, and to focus on the overall package of measures rather than just on the pensions question. That £10 million could provide savings, as the Minister suggested earlier.
My hon. Friend has characteristically drawn us to the centre ground. When we consider our public sector workers, we should look not at their pensions in isolation but at the broader question of the compensation terms and conditions under which they are employed.
As I have said, we are talking about a relatively small number of workers. Those members of our public services have a physically demanding job, but it is also a requirement of their public service employment that they are at times asked to put their lives at risk to maintain public safety. It behoves us to take a special approach to such workers and to the way in which their pension conditions are treated.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about the physical efforts of the uniformed services, and that the £10 million will not derail the whole package? We need to be aware that certain jobs are particularly physically demanding, and that people cannot keep on doing them until they reach the relatively young age of my hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell, for example?
I do not wish to disagree with my hon. Friend, but I may have to do so. Many jobs in both the public and private sector are physically demanding, but I would not advocate a different retirement age purely on the basis of physicality. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman tried to make a specific point about physicality, but I believe that that is the wrong course to take. I believe that this group of workers—the MOD police force and firefighters—have an additional requirement placed on them by us, the taxpayers, whereby we ask them as part of their responsibilities potentially to put their lives at risk, or at least to put the safety and interests of the public ahead of themselves. If I may say so, that is a far more appropriate basis for our looking at this particular issue. People may wish to make the case for physicality, but there is a special case here that goes above and beyond that. That is, I think, the reason why the Minister has taken such great interest in trying to find a solution on this issue.
I welcomed hearing the Labour party admit that it completely forgot about these people when it was in office and raised the pension age. Hearing that was welcome, because all Governments make mistakes and people do get missed out in the transitions. Let me explain what I would like to hear from Chris Leslie today. There is a chance in future—I do not think it will be in 2015, but it is likely at some time for these public sector workers in the MOD, the fire service or the police force—of there being a Labour Government.
I am pleased that the shadow spokesman raises that possibility. Is he therefore prepared to put his money where his mouth is—today? He has made a commitment, but is it just words? If he is so confident of being in office, will he pledge today to ensure that these MOD workers have the same conditions as he advocates? I give way if he wishes to make that pledge.
The hon. Gentleman knows, I hope, that we are not making this decision in 2015; we are making it here and now in 2013. We have to confront the issue. He is trying to find all sorts of reasons not to disagree with the Whips who are leaning on him, saying “Please do not vote with your conscience on this particular issue.” We have accepted that the issue should have been addressed in 2007. Now that there is no excuse for lacking awareness of it—it is being debated now—is he really going to vote today, in his full awareness of these facts, to say that this particular group of firefighters should not be entitled to retire at 60 when all the other firefighters are? Is that really what he is going to do?
The hon. Member for Nottingham East is a fine fellow, but I have to tell him—[Interruption.] “Fine fellow” will be the beginning and end of my comments to him. [Interruption.] I will come to the point, as this strikes at the credibility of the political class in this country. What the Labour party spokesman is trying to do is to use words to set up people’s expectations without taking the responsibility to fund them. That is why the political class is seen through by the public, who are fed up with politicians making up arguments that exist in the world of fancy but not in the hard reality in which people live. If I may say so to the fine fellow opposite, if he wants to be honest to the British people and, more importantly, to the people whom this amendment is designed to represent, it is his responsibility to pledge today to put taxpayers’ money where his mouth is if he is ever in government. I note that that is a commitment that he has very specifically missed out today.
The Opposition seem to be saying that the decision should be made today without negotiation, but does my hon. Friend agree with me that negotiation is the best way forward, and that to have such negotiation, we need to support the Government’s proposal for negotiation?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s second intervention, because it enables me to agree with him this time. As I said at the start of my speech, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark made the same point in pressing the Minister for more specificity. I, too, wish to ask him for clarification on that point.
Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the debate is time-limited? If he wishes to hear the Minister’s clarification, he must leave time for it before the debate ends at 5.37 pm.
I shall attempt to make my points speedily, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made two requests. He asked when the negotiations that may be conducted between the Ministry of Defence and the workers and their representatives would have to be concluded, and suggested a three-month time frame. I support that recommendation. He also asked for an indication from the Minister, today if possible but otherwise in a subsequent letter to Members, of what the legislative process would be for the reaching of a resolution. I think that both those suggestions are very worth while.
Will the Minister confirm that the assessment by MOD and the workers’ representatives will not specify a particular retirement age, and that the decision will be based on an assessment of the potential ability of members of those work forces to do their jobs effectively? Will he also confirm—I think he said this earlier, but confirmation would be helpful—that the scheme will be flexible enough to allow us to make the changes without any limit, but that it will be up to those in the scheme to make the recommendations? I hope that he will be able to make those two commitments today.
It is important for the Government to be able to maintain a dialogue about the retirement age of our firefighters, both in the MOD and outside it. We are embarking on unknown territory, and I think that a Government who listen to these workers will be seen to be truly putting their money and their heart where their mouth and commitments are.
I thank all who have spoken during the past hour. I also thank my right hon. Friend Mr Knight, who could not speak in the debate, but who has an interest in the issue and has made representations to me on behalf of his constituents. I hope that I shall be able to respond to the points that have been made in the time that is available to me.
Both my hon. Friend Mr Reid and Dr Whiteford made a number of points. As they will understand, I could not agree with everything that they said, but they both made the sensible point that the Treasury and the MOD should take account of those who retire early on health grounds when considering the potential cost implications of the changes that we are discussing. I agree that we must bear in mind all the impacts on costs that the amendments might have.
My hon. Friend Stephen McPartland also raised a number of issues, including the important issue of the Opposition’s credibility in this regard. Some MOD firefighters and police officers who are listening to the debate will already have a retirement age of 65 rather than 60 because of the changes made by the last Government in 2007. When Chris Leslie speaks about such matters, his own credibility becomes somewhat shallow.
I do not often agree with Mr Anderson. I again did not agree with much of what he said, but I know he believes passionately in what he says, and I respect fully what he had to say. He is a great advocate for his constituents, but he, too, did not address the issue of the change that was made in 2007, and nor did his party colleague, John McDonnell. For the purposes of this debate, it would be useful to know whether the hon. Members who have spoken up today also did so when the retirement age was changed in 2007.
That is characteristic of the hon. Gentleman, as he opposes a lot in this Chamber, and perhaps did so even when his party was in government.
My hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell raised a number of points. I agree with his comments about fitness for the purpose. He asked about whether MOD firefighters and police officers are fit for the purpose and that is key, because it is essential that we set retirement ages that are appropriate for the jobs in question, as I said in my opening speech.
My hon. Friend also touched on the related issue of pension contributions. If we just accept these amendments, there will be consequences from the changes. Gemma Doyle, speaking for the Opposition, intervened on my hon. Friend on that matter, but what she said was wrong, because there would be consequences. We would have to think about who would pay for these changes, and if there were a change in the retirement age we clearly could not have a situation where, for instance, the civilian firefighters and the MOD firefighters had the same retirement age but paid different pension contributions. We would have to consider such issues. The hon. Lady knows that such issues exist, and it does not serve this House well to pretend they do not.
The Members who have engaged in this debate were asking the Minister to see whether there would be any movement, and one issue raised was the time frame for any potential negotiation on movement. I happen to think we should hold out for 60—that that should be the decision today—but I do want to ask the Minister: is he sure there is the potential for going to 60 for MOD firefighters and civilian firefighters without primary legislation? I am worried that, if we let this matter pass today, we might not be able to deal with it through regulations and secondary legislation, and that we will instead require primary legislation if we are to have the potential to get parity. Can the Minister confirm that we would need primary legislation for that?
I was going to come to that issue, because my hon. Friend Richard Fuller and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, as well as the Opposition spokesperson, raised it. I will say a bit about the MOD process, but first let me repeat an important point: this is a broad-ranging Bill to deal with all public sector pensions, affecting approximately 12 million individuals, by addressing the issue of increasing life expectancy and seeking to find the necessary savings in a fair way from employees, employers and the taxpayer. It is framework legislation: it sets the general framework for individual schemes, but that is all it does. It is for the individual employer organisations and the employees to negotiate the terms of each scheme.
We deliberately set up the legislation to provide significant flexibility, so that if the MOD, and therefore the Government, decide at a later date that the retirement age needs to change, it would not require further legislation. The MOD can make the decision in discussion with stakeholders and others. The legislation will give not just the MOD but all public sector employee organisations flexibility to deal with the particular circumstances of their schemes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington both asked about the time scale. I hope that tomorrow in the other place my noble Friend Lord Newby can give a bit more information about the time scale, because I have heard the desire of this House for that. The most important thing is that the issue is considered in the round, with the terms and conditions that are being negotiated for other schemes in the public domain. I expect the MOD to hold discussions within the same time frame.
The MOD has already fired the starting gun for those discussions, and has written to the members of the forces the legislation might affect. I am glad that process has started.
When the legislation leaves this House and goes back to the other place, could the Minister write to us explicitly about the generality of the Bill—about its being a framework Bill? It seems curious that a framework Bill lists a number of categories of worker whose retirement age will be at 60. That is why many people felt they needed to be included in that list if they were to be protected. It seems odd that the Minister is now saying, “Don’t worry because it is a general framework Bill.”
The Government have been very clear that one of the purposes of the Bill is to deal with increasing life expectancy and longevity. That is why retirement ages are increasing for almost all public sector workers, and there is a link to the state pension age. The Government must address the issue; it was something the previous Government ducked, but it is vital for making the public finances more secure. That situation has not changed. What I am outlining today, with regard to the issue relating to MOD firefighters and police officers, is that there is flexibility within the MOD scheme for it to come up with a different arrangement. The MOD has agreed to look into that. It has not made any decisions, but I am sure that it will look very carefully indeed at the issue.
The Minister says that the Bill is flexible. May I direct him to page 23, schedule 1, where there is a definition of fire and rescue workers? It states:
“In this Act, ‘fire and rescue workers’ means persons employed by…a fire and rescue authority in England or Wales…the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, or…the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Board.”
Currently, that reference does not include Ministry of Defence firefighters. Can the Minister tell us that it does not require primary legislation to amend schedule 1 in that way?
I thought I made myself clear but I will say it again: it would not require primary legislation if the MOD decided it was appropriate and right to make any changes to the retirement age.
My right hon. Friend asks a good question. I have heard the desire of the House for a timetable and I respect that. I will ask my noble Friend Lord Newby to speak further on that point tomorrow.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington asked me to write to him on a specific issue, and I will. I heard that point.
This has been a passionate debate. The Government have been very clear that we value tremendously the work of MOD firefighters and police officers. We have heard clearly the issues that have been raised today and how passionately they have been argued. I hope that I have managed to persuade some hon. Members—no doubt I have not managed to persuade all of them—that the Government take the issue seriously. The MOD will be looking into the issue and has already set the ball rolling. I hope that that will be a speedy process, and I urge the House to vote against the amendments.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 78 disagreed to.
More than two hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 79.—(Sajid Javid.)
The House divided:
Ayes 282, Noes 218.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 79 disagreed to.
Lords amendments 1 to 77 and 80 to 128 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived in respect of Lords amendments 18, 19, 22, 28, 29, 37 to 39, 45, 82, 114, 117, 119 and 127.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
That Jonathan Ashworth, Greg Hands, Sajid Javid, Chris Leslie and Stephen Williams be members of the Committee;
That Sajid Javid be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.— (Greg Hands.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.