Friday, July 21, 2017

"Why Boris Johnson should not decide where we invest our pensions"

On Tuesday I spoke at a seminar on the Government's attempt to instruct Council pension funds that they can only invest in accordance to their political prejudices. 

"John Gray explains why pension funds should be invested in members' interests and not at the whim of the current foreign secretary.

Over five million people rely on the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) to pay them a pension. So ensuring that the LGPS is invested in scheme members' interests, and not the interests of the current UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is of paramount importance.
That is why the recent victory by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in its judicial review of new government requirements to make LGPS funds follow the whims of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence is so important.
Since the government has publicly announced it will appeal this decision, it still remains a really important issue. And if the government can get away with directing public pension funds as to where they invest then this should also be of concern to all private pensions funds.
To be crystal clear, pension funds must be run in the interests of scheme members. But if these members indicate, for example, that they don't want their pensions to be invested in companies involved in the occupation of Palestine and in the abuse of Palestinian human rights then funds have a duty to respond.
Now, you need to have clear, democratic and open mechanisms about how you gauge such concern, but the overriding justification for this concern is not just about politics but about risk.
There is also a stack of evidence and guidance from the Law Commission and others that non-financial or ethical considerations can be the basis for action. Or even failure to consider these considerations could be a basis for legal action against pension trustees and advisers.
Companies with business interests, for example, in the occupied Palestinian territories are placing themselves at significant reputational, legal and regulatory risk. Risks that also affect investors and our pensions. Risks that the government highlights in its own overseas business guidance. A document that makes it clear the government does not encourage or offer support to business activity with the illegal settlements.
Where funds invest in these companies their statement of investment principles should explain how they will manage and minimise these risks. In this case I would hope that if companies realise they cannot reduce these risks they will cease any activities that give rise to them.
Where a company refuses to listen to its investors' concerns and continues to act in a manner that may even undermine international law, then of course divestment may be necessary as a last resort, but it is far better to get a company to change its business practices first.
However, let us be very honest, to have a successful engagement policy, you must have, at the end of the road, an effective stick as well as a carrot. If companies believe you will never actually disinvest then engagement will simply not work. The reputational damage and the possible increase in the cost of raising capital by disinvestment is key to getting companies to change behaviours.
When the government consulted on their proposed changes to the regulations, my union's branches (Unison) submitted hundreds of consultation responses, got almost 106,000 members to sign a government petition calling for a parliamentary debate on the LGPS, and worked with the opposition to challenge the changes.
So congratulations to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for fighting this injustice through the courts. The guidance has been withdrawn and there is unlikely to be an appeal hearing for at least 12 months due to court delay. In the meantime, all of us who believe that pension funds must be run in the interests of their beneficiaries and not politicians should join us in opposing the appeal.
John Gray is a trade union appointed representative on the Tower Hamlets Council Pension Board, writing in a personal capacity"

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Greater London UNISON Housing Association Branch Executive 2017/2018

Picture from tonight's Executive meeting held at L&Q office in Stratford. It is really great that lay activists turn up and participate after a full day's work to such meetings. One of our Executive members went off afterwards to go on a night shift at his project.

There was a number of serious issues discussed including mergers (todays announcement about merger of Notting Hill and Genesis) branch elections, staffing, conferences, finance and new Labour Link AGM with Shadow Housing Minister, John Healey MP

Many thanks to Regional AO Dario for picture. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

UNISON "There for You" appeal (collective self help for workers by workers)

Show your support for UNISON There for You by doing something magnificent today!

I am delighted to attach our review for 2016 illustrating just how, There for You, UNISON's own charity, helped members and what we achieved. 
Many of those members who needed our help recounted stories of how they have struggled to provide for their family and pay for the most basic items.  For others the situation was much worse with worries about how they would pay their rent, mortgage or repay their debts. 
In these unprecedented times, our work is vital and for this reason I am writing to all branches to ask if you would consider making a donation so that we can meet this increasing need for our services.  Your donation could make all the difference. 
Ø      £104 would pay for a year's prescription charges ensuring access to essential medication
Ø      £120 could help pay towards school uniforms for 3 children
Ø      £150 would ensure that someone in need of emergency help could put food on the table
Ø      £200 would buy a washing machine for someone who is disabled
Ø      £800 could help with moving costs or essential household items after someone has lost their home or in the case of domestic abuse.
Ø      £1000 could pay for short-term assistance including a break away to improve health and wellbeing.
Ø      A regular donation or, subscribing to the Lottery would enable us to deliver meaningful support to even more members for a number of years. 
If your branch has recently made a donation or joined the lottery please accept my thanks.  If your branch has not made a donation please consider There for You - the charity that is exclusively for UNISON members and their dependants
The review itself is a wonderful way of telling members about the help that is available and, a positive message that can be shared as part of your recruitment activities.  It also sets out details of our plans for 2017 which, includes re-launching the lottery - something we hope all branches will subscribe to.
Thank you for taking the time to read this email.
Maureen Le Marinel
Maureen Le Marinel, NEC
Chair, Board of Trustees

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"Telling Boris where to go" Seminar aka "Local Government, Ethical Investment & the Law" (with Podcast Link)

This morning I spoke on behalf of UNISON at a breakfast seminar at the the headquarters of law firm, Bindmans, in central London.

Bindman had acted on behalf of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in their recent Judicial Review High Court victory, overturning the attempt by the Government to make Local Government Pension Schemes invest in accordance with UK Foreign Office and defence policy.

How completely bonkers is it that my pension fund can only invest overseas in accordance with the whims of UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson?

The first speaker was Nigel Giffin QC who was counsel for PSC (he was also the QC who advised the LGPS Pension board that there was no Crown promise or guarantee for funds if they go bust - Newham Connection)

Next was Jamie Potter, Partner Public Law and Human Rights, Bindmans LLP, who instructed Nigel.

I spoke last on behalf of UNISON on the implications for the LGPS and on wider procurement issues.

If you have an hour or so to spare of your life you can listen in full to the podcast of the seminar here

I am on about 49 minutes in (still amazed how northern/scouse I still sound after 29 years in London).

The Q&A was very good but not podcast.

I will post a summary of my presentation soon in the form of an article.

The plans to muzzle the LGPS are scary enough but the Tory plans to politicise and then command and control Council procurement is just corrupt and we need to call this out as such (in my personal opinion for what it is worth)

Many thanks to Mark Beacon, UNISON International Officer for his help and support.

(Afterwards, I was able to go and catch the tail end of an excellent seminar nearby on LOBOs & Housing Investment). 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Grenfell Tower & Fire Safety in High Rise Blocks motion to West Ham GC

Emergency Motion West Ham Labour Party General Committee 20 July
Grenfell Tower & Fire Safety in High Rise Blocks
This branch/GC notes:

1. The appalling loss of life at Grenfell Tower, together with the troubling prospect that the death toll will rise and the final number of those that perished may never be known;

2. The outstanding bravery demonstrated by the London Fire Brigade, supported by the Metropolitan Police and London Ambulance Service, in their efforts to save lives;

3. The tremendous generosity of local residents and community groups as well as people from across London and beyond in helping those affected by this national tragedy;

4. The systemic shortcomings of fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower, despite concerns being raised by residents who were sufficiently heard; alongside a fire safety and building regulation regime requiring major reform now that some 120 tower blocks across 37 local authority areas in England so far have failed fire safety tests and are confirmed to have combustible cladding;

5. The welcome announcement of an independent judicial public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire which has to serve the interests of the bereaved families, survivors and residents of tower blocks around the country who have serious questions about how and why this disaster happened and who is responsible;

6. The proactive and welcomed actions underway by officers and the Mayoral Advisor for Housing to ensure Newham residents living in council owned tower blocks and properties are safe.

7. That Grenfell raises many urgent questions for all local authorities about the adequacy of fire regulations, the efficacy of building inspection and enforcement regime and boroughs capacity to respond to emergencies. We should and can expect reform all of these.

This Branch resolves therefore resolves:

1. To call on Newham Council to commit the required resources to implement all necessary and required reforms in fire regulations, building inspection, control and enforcement so that Newham Council remains robust in its fire safety regime for all council owned properties;

2. To ensure that those properties held by Red Door Ventures and Local Space, in which Newham Council has a stake, similarly implement all required reforms to enhance their fire safety standards across the portfolio of properties they hold;

3. To ensure that all Housing Association providers, schools and education providers in Newham demonstrate that they are undertaking all required checks and enhancements to the fire safety regime in their properties;

4. To commit full political and officer support for a comprehensive Scrutiny review on issues arising from the Grenfell Tower fire (including planning policy, building regulations, housing management procedures related to fires safety of high rise blocks in the borough and; the level and type of engagement with residents on the issue of fire safety) and implications for Newham, as well as the independent public inquiry that has been announced once it reports;

5. To review existing processes of engagement with Council tenants/Leaseholders, especially on fire safety, and report back to all councillors/tenants/leaseholders on how they will be enhanced.

6. To re-establish the Newham Residents Housing Scrutiny Committee comprised of Councillors, Tenants and Leaseholders with reforms so that representatives from Housing association and private landlords/freeholders are also invited to attend.

7. To ensure that a full briefing for all Newham councillors is provided as soon as the current inspection work on Newham’s Tower blocks has been completed;

8. To ensure that regular reviews (at least once every year) takes place in consultation with all councillors and relevant residents.

Proposer: Anam Islam
Seconder: John Gray

(passed by Forest Gate North branch and sent to West Ham General Committee)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Labour at Forest Gate Festival 2017

Picture collage from Saturdays Forest Gate Festival. This was a really fantastic event and for the first time we had a Labour Party stall at the festival talking to people and encouraging them to join the Party.

It was amazing how many people said they were already members and the very positive reaction we had from other residents, who were not so far members but are so angry with this government and want to get rid of it.

Housing speech at UNISON National Labour Link Forum

John Gray, speaking on behalf of your National Labour Link Committee in favour of motion 11 (similar)  "Why we need to build a new housing consensus for affordable and decent homes for all"
as amended.

"Chair, Forum, In 1945 General election campaign, that took place after the end of the second world war, the wartime Tory Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was shouted down  at a rally in East London by crowds who demanded a mass house building programme. 

The failure by the Tories to convince the public that they would build enough homes at an affordable rent was one of the reasons for the shock Labour victory.

For the next 34 years the Tories had learnt their lesson about the importance of housing and there was a national consensus all political parties competed with Labour at every local and national election on who could provide the most homes and the cheapest rents.

Then in 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected and the Tories began dismantling public housing, destroying the consensus by divide and rule - and denying millions of people their basic human right to a home.

The Tories 38 year strategy of dismantling public housing has been the biggest privatisation in this country’s history.

The Right to Buy was misnamed from the start – it was a Right to a Discount – and 38 years on, we find that huge numbers of the homes that have been sold and not replaced.

Today, there are 1.5 million fewer homes available for a rent, that people on low incomes can afford, than there was 38 years ago - and the population has grown dramatically since.

In this parliament over £100bn will be spent paying housing benefit to private landlords and it won’t produce a single new home.

Forum, like many of you here today, I work in housing and my substantive job is as a housing officer of a large estate in the east end of London with 7 tower blocks.

Let us never forget that this attack on the provision of public housing is the reason why there were so many families with young children, disabled and elderly residents on the 18th floor of a tower block.

The scandal that surrounds the Grenfell House tragedy lies not just in the repeated failure of government to listen to and act on the advice they received but in the Conservative political mantra that all regulations are just "elf & safety" and therefore ‘bad’.

Forum, the general election campaign changed the public debate on housing and other key issues in this country. The tide of public opinion is turning. this motion provides the basis for UNISON to play its role in ending the dismantling of public housing and beginning a new era of providing quality, safe council and housing association homes with good space standards at rents people can actually afford.

Please support this motion.

(see a longer version of motion sent to NDC here  and read Yvonne Green speech proposing the motion here)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ShareAction Summer thank you 2017

Picture collage from Thursday evening "thank you event" in Brick Lane, East London for supporters of ShareAction - a campaigning body "to make investment a force for the good". 

It was great to meet so many people concerned about the power and impact of our collective investments. I met for the first time their CEO Catherine Howarth's children and her wonderful Mum!

I also had a chat with the Red City of London, Peter Kenyon; was lectured at by a pompous Green, entertained by Henry Tapper; spoke to two authors on Pension Governance and was really pleased to see that "Professional Pensions" won the "award" for "Strongest Coverage" of Responsible Investment. Well done to Stephanie and Jonathan.

As was mentioned at the event, the really exciting thing is that ShareAction are winning the argument...

Friday, July 14, 2017

UNISON at Notting Hill HA

Picture of Notting Hill UNISON activists in Vauxhall with our ace branch Fighting Fund Organiser, Mary Stump (left), after one of the most successful lunchtime recruitment events I have attended. Six new members filled out forms and there was huge interest and discussion from staff. .

I was there to help out on any pension enquiries as well to meet branch members and activists.

Many thanks to Notting Hill HR for providing a "hand masseuse" to attend our event (which went down really well) and for hot Pizza! 

There is No PPF or Crown Promise for the LGPS Pension scheme which must be run in the interests of pensioners and not the employers

To be clear.

A Council (or administering authority) is responsible for the majority of any pension deficit but that if the fund does badly and the Council runs out of money (which due to austerity it has been widely predicted will happen to some authorities)

- who will pay the pensions of our staff and their dependents?

If a private sector pension scheme gets into trouble, there is the pension protection fund which will step in to save it.

There is no Pension Protection Fund for the LBN Staff Pension fund or any local authority fund

If a civil service pension scheme runs into trouble there is a "Crown Promise" by the Government to step in and pay pensions.

There is no "Crown Promise" for the LBN Staff Pension fund nor any Local Authority Pension. 

This was recently confirmed by QC Barrister advice to the National Pension Board.

By law Pensions schemes must be run in the interests of the beneficiaries and not the employer.