Kenyan Civil Service Pensions: Non-payment

– in the House of Commons at 9:06 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 9:50 pm, 7th December 2020

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I thank the Minister and his colleagues for their assistance to me and other Members—a number are in the Chamber this evening—as we seek justice for our constituents. I hope that tonight’s debate might push things a little further.

In April last year, I was approached by my constituent Mr Balbir Singh Sekhon. I have known him since 1984, the year he took up work as a traffic warden with the Metropolitan police and I became his local councillor. He migrated from India to Kenya in 1956. For 18 years, from 1957 to 1975, he was a secondary teacher in Kenya. He was offered and took up British citizenship during that time. For the last 12 of the 18 years, he taught English language and geography at Nairobi Technical High School.

Mr Sekhon retired in the UK 1994. A couple of years later, he asked the Kenyan high commission about his Kenyan civil service pension. He was relieved to learn that he would receive a pension of £1,154.07 per year, paid through Crown Agents. He received monthly payments thereafter—in the year ending 5 April 2019, he received £1,546.45—but then the payments stopped. Crown Agents says it has not been paid by the Kenyan Government.

I wrote to the Kenyan high commissioner in June last year. He replied very quickly, within a couple of weeks, and asked Mr Sekhon to provide “urgently” a number of documents to the high commission. Mr Sekhon did so, but he is still waiting for the money he is owed.

Other Members have constituents in a similar position. My hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury has devoted a lot of effort on behalf of two people, both former teachers in Kenya before they came to the UK in 1975. They claimed pensions in the mid-1990s. Later on, they inquired whether their payments would be adjusted for inflation, and at that point the payments stopped.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson, who has led this campaign with great energy on behalf of her constituent Mr Sohan Singh. He is in the same position. His Kenyan pension has not been paid since 29 March 2019. Crown Agents says it has not received the payment. My hon. Friend took Mr Singh’s case up with the former Minister, Harriett Baldwin. Her advice—to raise it directly with the pensions department of the Kenyan Treasury—was not very helpful. Both Mr Sekhon and Mr Singh had tried that already, without success.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before I call Seema Malhotra, I want to remind everybody of one of the more interesting procedures: because the debate started before 10 o’clock, the Adjournment has to be moved again at 10 o’clock, so do not be frightened when I call order at that time.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I thank and congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate, which, as he said, is a matter of great concern for many of our constituents. I want to acknowledge and thank Mr Mangal Chudha in my constituency, who also brought this matter to my attention, along with two others.

My right hon. Friend just made the point that the UK Minister has told our constituents to write to the Kenyan Ministries. May I raise a concern and ask my right hon. Friend’s view on it? When I wrote to the Minister last year, I received this reply:

“While this matter is the responsibility of the Kenyan authorities, the British high commission in Nairobi has written to the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the head of the department for pensions in the Treasury seeking an explanation for non-payment of pensions and lack of increase in line with inflation.”

I was very surprised to see subsequent responses to parliamentary questions—for example, that tabled by our hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson. That answer, in February, said:

“This matter is the responsibility of the Kenyan authorities. However, the British High Commission in Nairobi has written to the Kenyan Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Head of the Department for Pensions in the Kenyan National Treasury seeking an explanation for non-payment of pensions to former Kenyan civil servants and the lack of increase in line with inflation.”

Our hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury received exactly the same response in July. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is for the Government to be doing more to support our citizens?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

My hon. Friend is quite right. There is no evidence of any reply having been received to those inquiries. I do not know how many times the question has been asked, but perhaps the Minister can shed some light on what is going on.

After that initial response, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West did receive a further letter from the Minister, which explained something that I thought was helpful and worth informing the House of. To quote from the reply to her:

“In very broad terms, HMG accepted responsibility for the pensions of those who were employed in Kenya on expatriate terms (i.e. had paid leave passages outside the country during their employment) and who were not citizens of Kenya on 1st April 1971 or the date of retirement if later. The pension of anyone who did not meet the above criteria above remained the responsibility of the Government of Kenya. This is why some pensions are paid by HMG and others, such as” the constituent

“by Crown Agents on behalf of the Government of Kenya.”

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward tonight. He and I talked last week about the issue. Does he not agree that in each constituency, my own included, where we come across injustice that we are unable to correct ourselves—and in a case where, I guess, this House has influence, and the Minister as well—there is a moral imperative that we use it for those we represent, such as his pensioners who have been abandoned by their Government and must not be abandoned by this one?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I think he raises an important point. Of course, today their Government is our Government; in the past, they were living under another Government, and we do not quite know what has happened or why these payments have ceased. However, he is absolutely right, and I am grateful for the way he has expressed it: it is right for Members of the House to raise these issues here in the hope that the Government can prevail and that their influence can ensure these payments resume.

There was a further letter to my hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson, who moved to the Foreign Office in the reshuffle that summer, which said, as my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra has already told us, that

“the British High Commission in Nairobi has written to the Kenyan Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Head of the Department for Pensions in the Kenyan National Treasury seeking an explanation for non-payment of pensions to former Kenyan civil servants and the lack of increase in line with inflation.”

That Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, James Duddridge—assured my hon. Friend that his officials would be in touch when they received a response. As far as I know, nobody has ever heard any information about that response, whether or not one was received, but in any case there was no progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West tabled a written question on 21 February. The Minister, who I am pleased to say is in his place tonight, replied that his Department had been in touch, again, with the Kenyan Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the head of the Department for Pensions in Kenya for an explanation, and he added in that answer that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was now helping the Kenyan National Treasury to contact Crown Agents Bank to expedite the reinstatement of the pensions. That was encouraging, but, over nine months later, the situation remains unchanged: the pensions have not been paid.

There is some history here. In 2009, Vince Cable tabled a written question to the Foreign Office, to ask the Foreign Secretary

“what recent representations he has made to the government of Kenya on the non-payment of pensions to retired Kenyan civil servants with British citizenship who are resident in that country.”

The Minister, Ivan Lewis, replied:

“The Government are very concerned by the Freezing Order issued by the High Court on 23 October 2009 on accounts belonging to the Government of Kenya held by Crown Agents Bank. The freezing of these accounts affects the payment of pensions to former Kenyan civil servants. We are raising the issue with the Government of Kenya who are fully aware of their responsibilities in the matter.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2009; Vol. 501, c. 880W.]

So this is not an entirely new problem. On 9 July 2013, the then Member for Brentford and Isleworth asked what recent discussions the Foreign Secretary had had with the Government of Kenya. The then Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mark Simmonds, answered:

“In recent years we have raised this issue with Kenyan Government officials on a number of occasions, including—”

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)),

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 10:00 pm, 7th December 2020

My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. He raises the very confusing issue of why we have not been able to get an answer to the questions around the non-payment of pensions to former civil servants, but also the lack of the increase in line with inflation, which I understand was part of the agreement many years ago between the British and the Kenyan Government, I think in 1977. A constituent has highlighted to me that he is one of 300 people who have not received an inflationary increase since 1991, and then from last year he has not been receiving his pension, so there has been some confusion over a number of years. Without answers to these questions, it is very difficult for people who are now in their 80s or sometimes in their 90s to be getting these answers directly from the Kenyan Government, which is what our Government are advising them to do.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I must say, I think my constituent has received inflation increases. There does seem to be some variability about who has received them over the last couple of decades. Who knows what the reason for that is?

I was just reading a written answer from 2013, which concludes:

“British high commission staff in Nairobi asked the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs about public sector pensions on 2 July 2013 and are awaiting a response.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 143W.]

That was seven years ago. Whether any response was received at that time, I do not know, but I certainly do not think any Member here has seen a response to any of these questions, which clearly have frequently been asked.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank and congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this late-night, niche, but important debate on the non-payment of Kenyan civil service pensions. In addition to the other examples raised, I want to highlight the case of my Slough constituent Amrik Singh Banse, who was a former civil servant in the teaching profession and whose pension sadly stopped without notice over a year ago. He has also informed me that, astonishingly, he has received no increment since 1992. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is simply unacceptable that individuals who have worked so tirelessly throughout their career are being left high and dry in such an egregious manner, and that is why our Government must intervene?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no dispute at all that our constituents are entitled to these payments. A promise has been made to them, and the Government of Kenya need to honour their promise to his constituent and to all the others.

Coming forward to this year, last month, I co-signed a letter to the Minister with my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Feltham and Heston and Paul Bristow, who I see in his place, asking that the Minister meet us to discuss what further steps the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will take to ensure that these pensions are reinstated and uprated in line with inflation. The Foreign Secretary confirmed to me in Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions last month that he would look to arrange the meeting, so we look forward to that.

I wonder whether the Minister can clarify the following tonight. First, how many people living in the UK does the Foreign Office think are affected by the non-payment of Kenyan pensions and, perhaps separately, by the issue that has been surfaced in this debate about the non-uprating of some of those pensions that have been in payment?

Secondly, can the Minister tell the House what recent discussions he has had about this with his Kenyan counterparts? Clearly the Foreign Office has asked about this on quite a few occasions. Has it received an answer from the Government of Kenya to any of its inquiries? What does the Minister make of it all? Why is it that our constituents have not been paid at all since the spring of last year? Lastly, what is the Department’s plan should the Kenyan Government continue to withhold these payments to which our constituents are entitled?

Our constituents have not received the pension that they are entitled to for almost two years. Some have been waiting longer. Many, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has said, are elderly. They are entitled to their pension, and there is an issue of dignity here. These people have worked and they are expecting to receive the fair pension that they are entitled to.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as being an administrative nightmare for our constituents, it is also highly distressing for people to have to battle for something to which they have a right? This is something that they have earned through their hard work and commitment to the Kenyan Government and through their public service to the Kenyan nation. They should not have to fight for it in their retirement. This is the time when we need our Government to step in and help them.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She sums up the message of the debate extremely well. I hope that the Minister will provide some hope for our constituents that this matter will finally be resolved, and I look forward to hearing his answers after others have contributed to the debate.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Paul Bristow has sought and received the permissions of the relevant bodies to make a short contribution to the Adjournment debate.

Photo of Paul Bristow Paul Bristow Conservative, Peterborough 10:06 pm, 7th December 2020

I congratulate Stephen Timms on securing this debate. The non-payment of Kenyan civil service pensions is not a high-profile issue, but although it might not be a well-known problem, it is a very real problem for individual constituents. There are people affected across the country, represented by Members on both sides of the House, and our debate tonight is hugely significant for them. The right hon. Gentleman spoke very eloquently on behalf of his constituent. He covered the basic issues well, and I do not intend to retrace that ground, beyond agreeing with the undeniable principle that those who worked diligently for the Kenyan Government over many years should be paid their pensions. It is entirely wrong for these relatively small sums of around £40 a month in many cases, which are still of huge value to individual constituents, to be withheld, because, small as they may be, it matters both morally and practically to these former Kenyan civil servants who have settled here in the UK.

My involvement, like that of other hon. Members present, stems from local casework. My constituent, Mr Darshan Chana, stopped receiving his pension in April 2019. No explanation was provided by the Kenyan Government or by the Crown Agents Bank, which administers his pension along with the others. Mr Chana came to me because, in his words:

“All attempts to all concerned have been entirely unsuccessful.”

I want to place on record my gratitude to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and in particular to the Minister for Africa—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend James Duddridge—for his efforts on Mr Chana’s behalf. This is, of course, a matter for the Kenyan authorities to resolve, but I know that the British high commission in Nairobi has been directly in touch with Kenyan Treasury officials. Similar contact has continued with the Kenyan high commission in London. We all hope that this saga can be drawn to a close, and that our constituents can have their pensions restored and backdated. I look forward to the Minister’s response, so that I can quickly provide a further update to Mr Chana. After 20 long months without his pension, perhaps we can finally provide some hope for the future.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:08 pm, 7th December 2020

I too would like to express my gratitude to Stephen Timms for securing this debate. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done on advocating for pensioners as chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. I would also like to thank the other hon. Members who have raised individual cases from a number of parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Minister for Africa is frustrated that he is missing this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I will try to answer as many of the questions raised as possible, but there may well be details to which I am not able to respond in this debate; I hope that Members will forgive me if that is the case. I will try to provide more complete responses later if there are gaps.

The individual constituents referred to today were previously dedicated civil servants working for the Government of Kenya. They have not received their pension payments—in some instances, for over 18 months. Prior to that, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. and right hon. Members, they have not had a pensions uprating since 1992. There have been previous occasions where pensions payments have been withheld, but not for this duration. Of course, a prolonged period of withheld payments has real-world consequences for the day-to-day lives of the people involved, and there is a risk that this will push individuals into a position where they face the unacceptable choice about which basic essentials they should forgo. The people we are speaking about have worked often lengthy and distinguished careers in public service, with the promise that they would receive their pension benefits. I therefore join the House in voicing our frustration at the harsh and unfair reality with which many of these individuals have been forced to grapple.

In 1963, the Government of Kenya inherited both the assets and liabilities of the pre-independence era, including the payment and administration of public service employees’ pensions. In 1970, it became clear that it was becoming an increasing burden on Kenya, and—as an aid initiative and in recognition of our history with Kenya—Her Majesty’s Government announced that they would assume responsibility for the award, control, administration and payment of pension benefits of certain former public servants and their beneficiaries. As the right hon. Member for East Ham mentioned, these were people employed on expatriate terms—that is, those who had paid leave passage outside the country during their employment and who were not citizens of Kenya on 1 April 1971 or on their date of retirement, if that were later.

The pension of anyone who did not meet these criteria remained, and still remains, the responsibility of the Government of Kenya. It is this second group that we are discussing today. In response to the right hon. Member’s question, our estimate is that there are 229 retired civil servants who fall into this category. Some of these pensioners, whose payments are the sole responsibility of the Government of Kenya, now reside in the United Kingdom, and are our constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members.

The Government of Kenya appointed Crown Agents Bank as the global paying agent for their pensions liabilities, and it is Crown Agents Bank that is entrusted to make payments to those owed pensions by the Government of Kenya who are based overseas. However, in April 2019, the Government of Kenya ceased releasing funds to Crown Agents Bank, which was therefore unable to make the pension payments to the relevant former officers of the Kenyan civil service. We understand that there are a total of 286, with 229 residing in the United Kingdom.

The Government of Kenya have, as yet, not provided any explanation for the suspension of the payments. Her Majesty’s Government, specifically the former Minister for Africa, were first made aware of this suspension of payments at the end of May 2019 by Mrs Hodgson, who had received letters from affected constituents. From the speeches and interventions this evening, it is clear that other right hon. and hon. Members were approached by constituents in similar circumstances.

When it became clear that this was not an isolated incident, and indeed not a short-lived incident, a number of months later Her Majesty’s Government immediately got in contact with the Government of Kenya. We have regularly made both official and ministerial representations to the Government of Kenya, including on a number of occasions throughout 2019—I am making sure that I do not inadvertently pre-empt part of my own speech—and up to 3 December 2020, when the Minister for Africa raised this issue. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London lobbied the Kenyan high commissioner and our high commission in Nairobi liaised with the pensions department of the Kenyan National Treasury, as well as raising the issue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In all those exchanges, we asked for an explanation as to why payments were stopped, and called on the Government of Kenya to resume payments and backdate them as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. During all those exchanges with the Government of Kenya, and given that this is a moral and ethical issue, did our Government Ministers explain to the Kenyan Government that this will become a matter of great shame for them? Even given the small amounts and the small number of individuals involved, it will still be a historical blot of non-compliance and non-payment to hardworking individuals who have served Kenya so tirelessly throughout their lives.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I have not been privy to the details of the conversations, but I think it would be unimaginable for the Kenyan Government not to realise that when there is interest from Members of the UK Parliament, it will become a high-profile issue and it will have reputational implications for them.

The Government of Kenya, unfortunately, have never proactively raised this issue with us. Our high commissioner in Nairobi raised the issue with Principal Secretary Kamau from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 1 December, sharing with them the copies of the note verbale we had previously submitted on the subject. My colleague the Minister for Africa also raised it with Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury and Planning Yatani on Thursday 3 December and pushed again for pension payments to be resumed and backdated.

We have been in regular contact with Crown Agents Bank and understand that in recent months it has made progress with the pensions department of the Kenyan National Treasury. Crown Agents Bank provided additional information at the request of Kenyan authorities but as yet the funds needed for payments to resume have still not been released.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I thank the Minister for the detailed response he is giving. Do the Government have any sort of taskforce that is dedicated to trying to get a resolution on this issue and to pursuing that doggedly? Will they keep those in the UK who are retired and affected up to date? I make the point again about the distress and strain for them, their children and their wider families, and the concern about whether, if people have passed away, their entitlements will still go to their relatives, because their families should have received them.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My understanding is that we do not have a specific taskforce, but we do raise this issue at both high commissioner and ministerial level. My hon. Friend the Minister for Africa will be travelling to the region and raising this issue again with his Kenyan counterparts when he has the opportunity to do so. The matter is being dealt with at both senior official and ministerial level. I hope that shows the House that the Government take this issue very seriously indeed.

We understand that the Kenyan Treasury is now taking the matter forward with Crown Agents Bank. Quite frankly, progress has not been made anywhere near as fast as we would have hoped. In his contacts with the Kenyan Government my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa is urging swift resolution to this matter to ensure that payments to all individuals affected resume and that the outstanding sums are made good. He will have noted this evening’s debate, and I hope that the Government of Kenya will have done so too and ultimately will do the right thing for the public servants who worked with them in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.