Defence Police and Fire Pensions: 26th November 2013

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) on securing this debate and on his tenacity and diligence on the issue. I am aware that there is, and has been, a great deal of interest in this matter. I thank the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for his speech. He reminds us that the topic attracted a number of speakers during the passage of the Bill and of the importance that many attached to it.

It is important to set out that members of the Ministry of Defence police and the defence fire and rescue service are civil servants. Although there are similarities in the roles and responsibilities of both groups when compared to their Home Office and local authority colleagues, I would say that they are not the same. I believe that that has been recognised historically.

By way of history and some background, the 1979 Wright committee that examined the Ministry of Defence police found significant differences in their role when compared with what we call the Home Department police forces—the ordinary police officers and police forces as we ordinary citizens know them. For example, at that time—back in the 1970s—the work was essentially routine and involved a high proportion of static duty, largely because of the high degree of security.

In 1994 a study led by Sir John Blelloch recognised that there had been a significant change in the role of the Ministry of Defence police since the Wright report. Most notably, a requirement had been introduced for all MDP officers to have the capability to be armed. The MDP had also moved away from routine security towards higher-value armed guarding roles. Nevertheless, Blelloch noted that there were still substantial differences between the role of the MDP and the role of Home Department forces, such as the lower level of crime dealt with and the attendant physical stresses and strains placed upon Home Department police forces, as opposed to their counterparts in the MDP.

It might be helpful for the House to know that a much wider review of terms and conditions of service concerning the Ministry of Defence police is currently being conducted. This review, although begun earlier, ​is being taken forward in the light of the outcome of the independent review of the remuneration and conditions of service of police officers and police staff in England and Wales that was undertaken for the Home Secretary by Tom Winsor.

The defence fire and rescue service is subject to rigorous modernisation and efficiency initiatives, including the examination of opportunities for greater private sector involvement through the defence fire and rescue project which is in its assessment stage following initial gate approval, as it is called.

The Ministry of Defence police and the defence fire and rescue service personnel have always been members of the principal civil service pension scheme, as are all uniformed civil servants. Therefore they are subject to the normal pension age of that scheme which is 65, although the closed sections have a normal pension age of 60. The civil service unions have already accepted this move to a normal pension age of 65 for all staff joining since—after, in other words—2007. Prospect and Unite, which represent members of the defence fire and rescue service, were two of those unions.

As I am sure Members will be aware, in 2010 Lord Hutton conducted a review of public sector pensions. He recommended that the normal pension age for civil servants should rise in line with the increasing state pension age, but he made an exception, as we have heard, for the armed forces, firefighters employed by local authorities and Home Department police forces. For those individuals, he proposed that the normal pension age should be set at 60, but only where their normal pension age was currently below 60. That would have the effect of their pension age increasing in line with that of other public servants.

Following the review into public sector pensions, both the Defence Police Federation, which represents the Ministry of Defence police, and Unite, which represents the firefighter grades of the defence fire and rescue service, lobbied the Lords. They wished that exception to be extended to them so that their normal pension age would not only not rise in line with the state pension age, but reduce from 65 to 60.

As we have heard, the Public Service Pensions Bill was last debated in the House on 24 April this year. The Lords amendment proposed at the time was accepted by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He announced that the Ministry of Defence would prepare and lay before the House a report on the likely effect on both groups of staff of the normal pension age increasing in line with the state pension age. The report was to consider the following three issues: the likely effect of the increased pension age on the health and well-being of the two groups; the likely effect on their ability to continue to meet operational requirements; and the extent to which they were likely to take early retirement as a consequence of the increase in normal pension age, and the consequences of that for them and for the taxpayer.

On 15 May the Ministry of Defence set out the report’s terms of reference, which were simply to

“review the Normal Pension Age of both the Ministry of Defence Police and Defence Fire and Rescue Service personnel”.

Those terms of reference were communicated to the respective trade unions and accepted without amendment. As part of the review, my Department has consulted the ​relevant trade unions and the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence police and the chief fire officer of the defence fire and rescue service.
 
David Wright
The Minister says that she has consulted the unions. She might not be able today to give the dates on which those meetings took place, but could she provide that information in the Library of the House?
 
Anna Soubry
I see no reason why not, so I am more than happy to do so. I should have explained, as I often do in these debates, that if I do not answer the various matters raised by hon. Members in the course of my speech, I will write to them.
 
Mr Reid
My hon. Friend said that there were discussions with the trade unions. For clarification, the Defence Police Federation has reminded me that it is a professional association, not a trade union. I just wanted to check whether it had been consulted along with the trade unions.

Anna Soubry
I am so sorry—this is entirely my fault, because I was specifically briefed on that—but I have completely forgotten the answer to that question. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for rightly raising that point about the Defence Police Federation. I know that there is an answer to his question, and it might be provided to me in the course of my speech. If it is not, I undertake to put it all in the Library. There is no difficulty at all in doing that.

I will now turn to the specific points my hon. Friend raised. I thank him for providing a copy of his speech, which is so helpful in these circumstances. I fear that I will be unable to answer all his questions, because of the short time available to us. The MOD will review the levels of abatement of pay and net pay deductions as part of the continuing and wider work into the terms and conditions of service and the future of both the MDP and the defence fire and rescue service. It is as part of that work that we are reviewing pension calculations.

We are also reviewing all pay and remuneration conditions and other potential benefits. For the purposes of that report, the Defence Secretary directed that the review should concentrate on the questions posed by the Act. As I have already stated, a separate continuing review is looking at the broader issues. The Department has engaged with the Defence Police Federation—I think that that answers my hon. Friend’s question—and the defence fire and rescue service section of Unite. Engagement with the federation has been through the quarterly police committee, the monthly Ministry of Defence police management board, and regular meetings in respect of the separate terms and conditions of service review.

Unite was briefed by relevant business units at the outset of the review. It has been engaged in agreeing the statement of requirement that, as I explained, was submitted to the Government Actuary’s Department, and it was invited to attend workshops and make separate submissions to the review as it has progressed. Unite is fully aware of the business units’ conclusions, and its ​concerns and points of view have been considered by the review. The reports due to be laid in the House—I will give the dates in a moment—will form part of the continuing discussions regarding future changes to the terms and conditions of both groups, including their pension age. I am reliably informed that staff representatives will have a copy of the report before it is published, and that is an eminently sensible idea.
 
David Wright
The Minister is relatively new to her post but I have experience of working with her in other areas of work and she is always fair and equitable. Is she willing, as the Minister involved at this point, to meet the trade unions to talk through some of the issues that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) has raised? That would be very welcome.

Anna Soubry
As an old trade unionist—a proud shop steward, I might say, of the National Union of Journalists—I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, my new friend. I have absolutely no problem with that, or with meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute and trade union representatives. It might be fair to add the Defence Police Federation. It is always a pleasure to talk to the federation.

In respect of parity, the MOD acknowledges that defence police and firefighters deliver a professional and valued service to the Department and, not least, to the nation. There are significant differences in how they carry out their roles and responsibilities as compared with those under the remit of the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office, and it is only right that that should be reflected in their terms and conditions of service.

During the review of the pension age, the MOD has considered a number of studies on the fitness levels of people over 60 and their ability to carry out their duties without long absences from work, including the likelihood of early retirement before the age of 65. These will all be referenced in the report. In addition, we have taken account of the management information available within the MOD. Individuals who find that they are unable to maintain the fitness capability required will continue to be exited under the regulations that are applicable to their pension scheme membership.

I hope that I have addressed all the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute and others; if not, I will do so by way of letter. We must not forget that we agreed to undertake a review into the likely effects of an increase in the normal pension age beyond 65 on Ministry of Defence police and defence fire and rescue service personnel and, as part of that review, we will consider the three matters that I have outlined. I can assure Members that that is what we are doing. The review is due to be completed by 24 December this year and the Department is on track to meet that deadline. The report will be laid in the House before it rises on 19 December.