Tuesday, October 08, 2013

UNISON Local Government Pension Scheme Seminar 2013

Last week I chaired this well attended national seminar at the UNISON Centre in London on the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). There were about 90 UNISON LGPS activists from all over the UK.

The stated aim of the day was to explore the outcomes of the implementation of the Hutton Review and understand the huge developments that have since taken place.

First speaker was UNISON National Secretary and LGPS Shadow Board member, Jon Richards. Jon gave a sober update on the ongoing and often tortuous negotiations between the Board and its various components - the Unions, the Local Government Association, the DCLG  and the Treasury on the future costing and governance of the LGPS.

He has discovered that some parties are now suggesting that they should not be subject to past agreements since they did not understand at the time what these original agreements meant! Jon warned us that we must not just rely on what national officers can deliver but must organise and argue locally for change and must act and think as equals in all these negotiations.We have a job of work to do.

Next was UNISON Pension officer, Glyn Jenkins who gave the first of a 2 part presentation on the technical negotiations on future benefits for LGPS 2014.

National Capital Stewardship officer (and seminar lead) Colin Meech gave a call to arms for everyone present to organise and plan for us to have 50/50 member representation on all 89 England and Wales LGPS pension boards. We all need to step up to the challenge ahead of us.

Financial Academic, Dr Chris Seir (see picture left speaking - a former Police officer, past investment adviser but still a martial arts expert) gave a convincing insider argument that our pension funds are being ripped off by excess and unnecessary fees and charges.

Karen Thrumble from Statestreet didn't quite agree with everything that Chris had said. She did have concerns about the advice of some LGPS investment advisers on certain expensive products and while did not think there was sufficient research to say that "big is always best" in the size of LGPS funds, she did think that bigger funds tended to produce better returns since they could invest more cheaply in-house and be less complex.

UNISON South West region organiser and an employee nominated trustee on our staff Pension scheme, Jon Dunn, reminded us that socially responsible investment (SRI) should be at the heart of everything we do as pension trustees. The TUC and a number of major unions including UNISON had recently set up "Trade Union Share Owners" (TUSO) on voting shares at company AGM's and engagement to try and make sure this happens with our workers capital.

Next was Jackie Hamer, who is a UNISON lay activist and is a member nominated rep on the Environment Agency pension fund which is part of the LGPS family. The governance and SRI arrangements in her almost fully funded open Defined Benefit scheme are an exemplifier with 50/50 employer/employee representation.

Catherine Howarth from the pension watchdog, ShareAction (specialist subject upsetting Pension fund administrators and Company Chairs at their shareholder AGMs) gave a great example of the potential power of Pension trustees and beneficiaries by showing how their campaign had helped result in an increase of top FTSE companies paying a Living wage from 2 to 11 to all its UK staff and subcontractors.

Final speaker was Glyn Jenkins again who gave a typical "belt and braces" overview of what LGPS 2014 technical benefit changes will mean to our members. All of us can now expect lots and lots of case work from LGPS members with long service who have reached the magic age of 55.

While we are not allowed to give financial advice I think you need to ask members if they retire early at that age (by choice and not due to ill health or redundancy which have very different consequences) with all the penalties, do they really want to risk dying in poverty?

In my closing comments I thanked the organisers and speakers for a great seminar. I had been told by one representative during the tea break that this had been the best event laid on by UNISON that he had ever attended! I repeated Jon Richards earlier call for action, that it is up to all of us, lay activists and organisers, at every level to act and defend the long term interests of our pensions.

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