29 Feb 2016 : Column 779

Steelmaking would be an industry with a future if only it had a Government that believed in it. Steel is integral to the long-term success of our advanced manufacturing, particularly in relation to the automotive, aerospace and rail sectors and to our sovereign capability in the defence and nuclear industries. Steelmaking can be competitive in this country, and we on Teesside can still play a role. We just need the Government to take action. Teesside still has the potential to be a hub for developing new technologies, and to lead the way in the circular economy—re-engineering waste, recycling and energy recovery. Where once we may have produced carbon, now we can capture and store it or even reuse it. Where once we forged steel, we may yet be able to recycle it with electro-arc furnaces. We just need a Government who believe in us.

That is why I will continue to press the Minister—I hope that she will, in turn, press Innovate UK and, ahead of the Budget, the Chancellor—for the establishment of a materials catapult for research and innovation on Teesside, focusing on the early stage of metals development.

Jim McMahon: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Chancellor seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time speaking to the Chinese about investment to fund the northern powerhouse investment pitch book—of course, to appeal to parts of the UK that other potential Conservative leadership candidates cannot possibly reach—than supporting our own industry? Will she join me in warning Conservative Members that if our industry dies, Britain dies too?

Anna Turley: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. There is no greater testament to the lack of progress of the northern powerhouse so far than the devastating loss of steelmaking on Teesside. If the northern powerhouse means anything at all, it means jobs, industry and growth on Teesside, and on that count the Government have failed.

With the materials catapult for Teesside—the existing research and development hub, which is the materials processing industry in my constituency—the Government have the perfect opportunity to put right some of their wrongs and to help some kind of steel phoenix to rise from the ashes in Teesside. Teesside can build on its industrial strength and once more play a vital role in driving the UK’s industrial and high-tech economy of the future.

But we need a Government that will support us, a Government that will commit to an industrial strategy and a Government that, dare I say it, will invest. What we do not need are a Government that fail to play their role on the global stage, but that is what we have seen. The Chancellor has been out in China, and I can only imagine how grateful it is to him that his Government have actively blocked our European colleagues’ efforts to increase tariffs on Chinese steel in the EU by scrapping the lesser duty rule. I can only imagine how grateful it is to him that his Government are such cheerleaders for China in seeking market economy status, which would give the green light to Chinese steel flooding. President Obama has pledged aggressive action through the trade Bill in Congress, and the US recently imposed duties of 236% on a particular grade of Chinese steel.

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I, for one, am fed up with the Government and Government Members pretending that membership of the EU is the reason they cannot act. Instead, I want them to work with our European partners to impose tariffs and tackle dumping. I am frankly embarrassed that it is the UK that is leading a small group of nations in opposing higher tariffs on China because of the Tories’ ideological obsession with a market economy that sees jobs, communities and entire industries as a price worth paying for their kind of laissez-faire, unfettered global market.

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): You know that’s not true.

Anna Turley: We have heard it from the Government Benches tonight.

We will keep fighting and holding the Government’s feet to the fire. No more job losses, no more closures—we need the Government to act. We want the Government to stand up for Britain. We want the Government to save our steel.

9.35 pm

Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP): It is a pleasure and a privilege to bring up the rear, so to speak, in such an important debate. If I may be light-hearted for a moment, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) was challenged to a rugby match at the beginning of the debate, so I am pleased to inform her that I took part in the first mixed rugby match recently, representing the MPs and Lords. I even scored a try. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”]

The number of debates we have had on this issue and the number of times we have returned to it show the strength of feeling not just across this House, but across the nations of the United Kingdom. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who spoke passionately about their constituencies, as did Members from across the House. My colleagues have been involved in the Scottish taskforce and have done extensive work in engaging with their respective local communities on the future of the steel industry in Scotland and in standing up for their rights and interests. As they said, the steel industry has been at the heart of their constituencies for generations. Our thoughts continue to be with the many towns and communities across the UK that are at the mercy of the volatility in the global steel market and the glut of steel production, as well as the UK Government’s lack of commitment and action.

I pay tribute to the work of everyone on the Scottish steel taskforce, including the union representatives. I am particularly pleased that they have been included in the Scottish taskforce, by contrast with the situation at the outset south of the border. They were at the heart of our discussions and engagement from the very beginning.

Fergus Ewing MSP, my colleague in the SNP Government, is the Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism. He faces many challenges, but he and his colleagues in the Scottish Government and Parliament, including Clare Adamson MSP, who is from a steelworking family, continue to work tirelessly to keep the Dalzell and Clydebridge steel plants open. They are committed

29 Feb 2016 : Column 781

to finding a buyer for the sites, continuing commercial production and keeping as many jobs as possible onsite and in Scotland.

The strategic importance of the plants to Scotland and the UK cannot be overstated. It is apparent in the specialist skills and knowledge and the innovative approach that are inherent in Clydebridge and Dalzell. According to UK Steel, the Dalzell plant is the only plant in the UK capable of rolling and processing the steel that is used in the Ministry of Defence’s special armour plate and for certain requirements of the offshore oil and gas industry. The Clydebridge plant specialises in producing difficult-to-make high-strength steels that are used in some of the most challenging environments in the world. We truly have a world-class industry that we in Scotland believe is worth fighting for.

However, when the UK Government are faced with an opportunity to fix the issues, they are flat-footed and seem to shy away. A case in point is the issue of tariffs, which has been discussed extensively this evening. It is shameful that the UK Government have actively blocked the proposals to raise tariffs on Chinese steel. The UK Government confirmed in mid-February that they had blocked proposals from EU members to block the dumping of cheap steel products in the EU by China. The Government’s blocking of the proposal came after the Secretary of State signed a joint letter from European Ministers, pledging

“to use every means available and take strong action”

against China and Russia. He has the means at his fingertips, but he chooses not to use them.

The UK Government must work harder with their European partners to address the dumping of cheap steel in European markets, which is, as we all know, undermining UK steel production. Although 2% of UK steel demand was met by Chinese imports in 2011, that figure has been forecast to rise to 8% this year and next. We are all keen to hear from the Minister on that point.

The message is clear: there are vital skills, innovative approaches, and a unique and distinct heritage in Scotland and the UK steel industry, but how far will the Government go to save it? When I was doing research for this debate, I came across an article in the Scunthorpe Telegraph:

“Scunthorpe’s main steel union Community has slammed Business Secretary Sajid Javid for stating the UK steel industry could not expect to be to bailed out in the same way as the banks.”

A spokesman for the Community union said:

“The Prime Minister himself has said that steel making is ‘vital’ to the UK economy, so these are ill-judged remarks from Mr Javid.”

I could not agree more.

The UK Government have the money, political will and determination to bail out the banks, but they cannot find it in their heart, or indeed their pockets, to support an industry that is of vital strategic importance to our economy. I am not, of course, calling for the nationalisation of steel production assets, but I simply suggest that the Government are short on political will and creativity in supporting the steel industry in its time of need.

9.40 pm

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Again, we are debating the crisis in the steel industry in the context of thousands of job losses, closures of steel plants, and an industry hanging by a thread, with the livelihoods of

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20,000 workers, their families and communities under threat, and all that in an industry worth £9.5 billion to the UK economy, and which ran a trade surplus in 14 of the last 17 years. The problem we face now is that of the dumping of cheap Chinese steel on the global market. The challenge is how we defend highly skilled British jobs and the future of a vital industry, and safeguard an important source of exports in the face of this crippling and difficult situation. We must support the wider economy by taking a strategic view of what is in the national interest.

We have heard excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), for Neath (Christina Rees), for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for Redcar (Anna Turley), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth).

The steel industry and the thousands of people that it employs are looking to Parliament and to the Government for support. The industry has come to the Government with five key asks to help to protect jobs and exports. Although there has been some belated progress, the Government’s response overall shows that they are not prepared to take an active role in protecting the steel industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool said when commenting on the excellent BIS Committee report, we must do more at European Union level. The Government claim that four out of five asks have been delivered, but on procurement no orders have been received in steel plants since those changes were made.

My hon. Friend told us that cheap Chinese steel needs effective international action if it is to be tackled. China is responsible for four times the combined production of the next biggest four steel producers, and unless there is co-ordinated, concerted effort internationally to combat illegal dumping, nothing will change. We were told that the British steel industry faces an existential threat through the grossly distorted market, and my hon. Friend’s plea, and that of members of his Committee, was for a co-ordinated approach.

The industry needs swift action on tariffs that protects steel produced in the UK and other EU countries against Chinese dumping, yet our Government have played a role in blocking that. The Prime Minister’s office opposed the idea of fairer tariffs on the grounds that it was protectionism—something confirmed a number of times throughout the Secretary of State’s speech today. Ensuring that we have a level playing field to protect our workers and businesses from a situation that threatens to destroy an entire industry is not protectionism. On the contrary, it is common sense and it is right. As Gareth Stace, the director of UK Steel, said:

“Anti-dumping measures in the EU do not currently have the teeth to halt this tsunami of dumped steel”.

The Government must support the lifting of the lesser duty rule, because otherwise steel manufacturing will be lost in the UK and across Europe. It is a simple ask, and one that is supported by other EU countries,

29 Feb 2016 : Column 783

yet the UK Government have failed to stand by their own country’s industries, not just in steel but in ceramics and other energy-intensive industries.

The Government have also shown little action on changing business rates for large manufacturers. I sat in Committee last week with the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise and heard of her commitment to an overhaul of rates. When it comes to it, however, the review first announced in 2011 is still to start and the industry continues to pay twice when it comes to rates on investment in plant and machinery. The industry was told that helping plant and machinery manufacturers was unaffordable. The Government review rumbles on as we wait to hear what they will do to support investment in plant and machinery. Will they tackle existing competitive disadvantages suffered by UK steel sites on plant and machinery, which account for up to 50% of their business rates?

Serious challenges have coalesced around the steel industry: a glut of global supply, energy costs, high business rates and a strong pound. The industry did not expect the Government to offer a silver bullet. What it rightly expected was for the Government to play their role in what should be a partnership. The most successful economies are characterised by partnership between government, industry and the workforce. For partnership to be effective, the Government have to play their part. Businesses and workers, through the trade unions, have played their part, but what of the Government? The situation demanded that the Government see the long-term strategic value of steel production and act accordingly to protect high-skill jobs and the future of a key strategic industry. The Government, however, failed to intervene to save the Redcar coke ovens. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) rightly described that lack of support as an act of industrial vandalism.

An industrial strategy is nothing more than a Government’s willingness to enter into a partnership with business and workers: to match their ambitions by looking beyond election cycles and investing in the infrastructure and the training they need to flourish; to see the long-term value of strategic industries; and to take the necessary steps to support and safeguard them. If the Secretary of State and his Ministers want to be a true partner to the steel industry, there are few clearer steps that the Government must take now. [Interruption.] If the Lord Chancellor were here earlier, he would have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) saying that.

The Government must block the unfair trading of steel by supporting EU trade defence instruments, allowing the swift implementation of defensive tariffs. The Secretary of State must throw his support behind tariffs and ensure they are set at a level that would protect UK steel. He and his colleagues should support the EU countries that have supported a level of tariffs that will help our industry and our economy. Remember that at one stage it looked as though the Secretary of State accepted the need for change. He signed a letter with counterparts from France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Belgium and Luxembourg demanding that the European Commission use every means available and take strong action in response to unfair trade practices. Sadly, a week later he told the Business, Innovation and Skills

29 Feb 2016 : Column 784

Committee that he was opposed to that very action, something he confirmed this evening when he said he was against removing the lesser duty rule. UK Steel director Gareth Stace described the U-turn as “galling” and said that

“government must support the lifting of the lesser duty rule, otherwise steel manufacturing will be lost in the UK and Europe.”

We need to take an active role in tackling Chinese steel dumping and need action on business rates for key industries and capital-intensive firms to level the field for UK steel by pursuing reform of tariffs at EU level. This is what the industry needs. It is what workers and their families need. It is what communities need, and it is what the wider economy needs. Until the Government take these steps, and until the Business Secretary begins to engage with a long-term industrial strategy to defend and promote UK businesses and workers, belated supportive words will be seen as nothing more than empty rhetoric.

9.49 pm

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): I begin by paying tribute to all those who work in our steel industry. As the Prime Minister describes it, it is indeed a vital British industry. Those workers are without doubt hard working, skilled and dedicated. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Community trade union leader, Roy Rickhuss. It is pleasure to do business with him; we do not always agree, but he undoubtedly leads a fine band of men and women. Of course, we also have to remember and recognise all those who have so unfortunately been made redundant in recent times. Our thoughts are indeed with them, their loves ones and their families.

I pay tribute to all hon. Members of all parties who have spoken in the debate. Let me explain the simple truth, which is a harsh fact and reality, as the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) knows. I was slightly disappointed in her speech, although it has sometimes been a great pleasure to work with her. She well knows that SSI was losing £600 million in just three years, and we all know the huge scale of Tata’s losses. Those are the harsh realities, and no Government can alter the price of steel. In some sectors of steel, prices have halved over a year, while consumption across the world has yet to reach the levels of 2008.

This is not a Government who have stepped back and not done anything. On the contrary, we have seized this nettle and got on with it. We had a steel summit, and the industry made five specific asks of us—and we have delivered on four of those asks. The fifth, which is rates—[Interruption.] As I was saying, on rates, we hope to be able to deliver in the way that I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would like—but we have delivered. It is strange because every time we deliver as we are asked, what do the Opposition do? They just shift the goalposts.

Let us go through the asks and start by looking at procurement. We have changed the rules of procurement, and I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Redcar saying that these were only minor and technical changes. Far from it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said, these are good and valuable changes; they include skills for the supply chain, which are just some of the new factors. Yes, we will evaluate them and make sure that Departments deliver because these are not guidelines—they are mandatory.

29 Feb 2016 : Column 785

The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) says that the Government should do more, but she has not told us whether the SNP in Scotland have changed their procurement rules. We know that they have not. On energy costs, we were asked to take action and we have taken action. We have got compensation and gone further than the ask made of us, and in relation to two of those significant charges, we are going to make sure that these are properly and fully compensated and effectively removed from next year.

Flexibility on the EU emissions directive is another ask on which we have delivered, and then we come to the issue of the dumping of steel by China. It is not just China, if I may say so; it is a number of countries, and that needs to go on the record. I take particular exception to some of the comments made by Labour Members, because in July we voted for the first time for tariffs on wire rod—of some 24% by way of charge. Then we voted again in November.

It is the lesser duty rule that has been so effective. Let me provide an example of the work we have done. On rebar, if we did not have the lesser duty rule, the charge would have been some 66%. In fact, what the industry wanted was a charge of about 20% to 30%. We have worked tirelessly to achieve that. The EU has set the figure at 9% to 13%, and it is this Secretary of State who took that argument and led the charge. We continue to do that with tubes and on cold rolled steel as well. That is the work that this Government have been doing, and I am proud of our record, and we will continue to fight when it comes to tariffs on Chinese and other countries’ steel.

Let me make something clear about the lesser duty rule. What it does is effectively ensure that the right balance is struck so that it is not overly protective, but tariffs are there at the right level to do the right thing by British steel. All that I will say about China and market economy status is that Russia has market economy status, and that has not prevented the European Union from imposing tariffs on it—and rightly so. I suggest that that is another very large red herring tossed in by the Opposition because we have delivered on asks that the industry and the unions have made of us.

What have we done? What has the Secretary of State gone and done? He went to Europe and called an extraordinary meeting of the Competitiveness Council. Far from sitting back in the European Union, we are now taking the lead, and that is why the Competitiveness Council met today. Unfortunately, I have not enough time to go through all the things that have already been achieved because of the action that we have taken in the European Union in order to deliver. For the first time, we are hearing language in the EU that heartens Conservative Members, although I think that Opposition Members simply do not understand it. The statement that was issued today mentions an absolute desire to ensure that competitiveness is at the heart of the future of the steel industry: a desire to reduce regulatory costs, to reduce regulation, and to look at the issues of illegal subsidies and, most important, electricity prices.

Anyone who wants to help out the British steel industry will support Trident, but where was the Leader of the Opposition on Saturday? On a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march.

Dame Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

29 Feb 2016 : Column 786

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question accordingly put.

The House divided:

Ayes 239, Noes 288.

Division No. 202]

[

9.57 pm

AYES

Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ahmed-Sheikh, Ms Tasmina

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Arkless, Richard

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bardell, Hannah

Barron, rh Kevin

Beckett, rh Margaret

Benn, rh Hilary

Betts, Mr Clive

Black, Mhairi

Blackman, Kirsty

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Boswell, Philip

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brock, Deidre

Brown, Alan

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burgon, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Butler, Dawn

Byrne, rh Liam

Cadbury, Ruth

Campbell, rh Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Champion, Sarah

Chapman, Douglas

Chapman, Jenny

Cherry, Joanna

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Cooper, Julie

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, rh Jeremy

Cowan, Ronnie

Coyle, Neil

Crausby, Mr David

Crawley, Angela

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cummins, Judith

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

David, Wayne

Day, Martyn

De Piero, Gloria

Docherty-Hughes, Martin

Donaldson, Stuart Blair

Doughty, Stephen

Dowd, Jim

Dowd, Peter

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Fellows, Marion

Ferrier, Margaret

Field, rh Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Fletcher, Colleen

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Foxcroft, Vicky

Gethins, Stephen

Gibson, Patricia

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mary

Goodman, Helen

Grady, Patrick

Grant, Peter

Gray, Neil

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Haigh, Louise

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Hayes, Helen

Hayman, Sue

Healey, rh John

Hendry, Drew

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Hoey, Kate

Hollern, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Huq, Dr Rupa

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Gerald

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Kane, Mike

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Kendall, Liz

Kerevan, George

Kerr, Calum

Kinnock, Stephen

Kyle, Peter

Lamb, rh Norman

Lavery, Ian

Law, Chris

Leslie, Chris

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma

Lewis, Clive

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Long Bailey, Rebecca

Lucas, Ian C.

Lynch, Holly

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mactaggart, rh Fiona

Madders, Justin

Mahmood, Shabana

Mann, John

Marris, Rob

Marsden, Mr Gordon

Maskell, Rachael

Matheson, Christian

Mc Nally, John

McCabe, Steve

McCaig, Callum

McCarthy, Kerry

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonald, Andy

McDonald, Stuart C.

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGarry, Natalie

McGovern, Alison

McInnes, Liz

McLaughlin, Anne

McMahon, Jim

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh Edward

Monaghan, Carol

Monaghan, Dr Paul

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Mulholland, Greg

Mullin, Roger

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Newlands, Gavin

Nicolson, John

O'Hara, Brendan

Onn, Melanie

Onwurah, Chi

Oswald, Kirsten

Pearce, Teresa

Pennycook, Matthew

Perkins, Toby

Phillips, Jess

Qureshi, Yasmin

Rayner, Angela

Reed, Mr Steve

Rees, Christina

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Rimmer, Marie

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robinson, Gavin

Rotheram, Steve

Ryan, rh Joan

Salmond, rh Alex

Shannon, Jim

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheppard, Tommy

Sherriff, Paula

Shuker, Mr Gavin

Siddiq, Tulip

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Andy

Smeeth, Ruth

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Cat

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Smyth, Karin

Starmer, Keir

Stephens, Chris

Stevens, Jo

Streeting, Wes

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, rh Ms Gisela

Tami, Mark

Thewliss, Alison

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thomas-Symonds, Nick

Thompson, Owen

Thomson, Michelle

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turley, Anna

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Watson, Mr Tom

Weir, Mike

West, Catherine

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Whitford, Dr Philippa

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Dame Rosie

Woodcock, John

Wright, Mr Iain

Zeichner, Daniel

Tellers for the Ayes:

Grahame M. Morris

and

Jeff Smith

NOES

Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Allan, Lucy

Allen, Heidi

Amess, Sir David

Andrew, Stuart

Ansell, Caroline

Argar, Edward

Atkins, Victoria

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Mr Steve

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Bellingham, Sir Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Berry, James

Bingham, Andrew

Blackman, Bob

Blunt, Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Borwick, Victoria

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, rh James

Buckland, Robert

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Sir Simon

Burt, rh Alistair

Cairns, Alun

Carmichael, Neil

Cartlidge, James

Cash, Sir William

Caulfield, Maria

Chalk, Alex

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Churchill, Jo

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Cleverly, James

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Costa, Alberto

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, rh Stephen

Davies, Byron

Davies, Glyn

Davies, Dr James

Davies, Mims

Davis, rh Mr David

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Donelan, Michelle

Double, Steve

Dowden, Oliver

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Drummond, Mrs Flick

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Sir Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Mr Nigel

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Fernandes, Suella

Field, rh Mark

Foster, Kevin

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Frazer, Lucy

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Fysh, Marcus

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, rh Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

Ghani, Nusrat

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, Chris

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, rh Robert

Hall, Luke

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, rh Matthew

Hands, rh Greg

Harper, rh Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Sir Oliver

Heappey, James

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Heaton-Jones, Peter

Henderson, Gordon

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoare, Simon

Hollinrake, Kevin

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Howlett, Ben

Huddleston, Nigel

Jackson, Mr Stewart

Javid, rh Sajid

Jayawardena, Mr Ranil

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Jenkyns, Andrea

Jenrick, Robert

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kennedy, Seema

Knight, rh Sir Greg

Knight, Julian

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lancaster, Mark

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, rh Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Lumley, Karen

Mackinlay, Craig

Mackintosh, David

Main, Mrs Anne

Mak, Mr Alan

Malthouse, Kit

Mann, Scott

Mathias, Dr Tania

May, rh Mrs Theresa

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Johnny

Merriman, Huw

Miller, rh Mrs Maria

Milling, Amanda

Mills, Nigel

Milton, rh Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, rh Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mowat, David

Murray, Mrs Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Dr Matthew

Opperman, Guy

Parish, Neil

Patel, rh Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Philp, Chris

Pickles, rh Sir Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prentis, Victoria

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pursglove, Tom

Quin, Jeremy

Quince, Will

Raab, Mr Dominic

Redwood, rh John

Rees-Mogg, Mr Jacob

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Robinson, Mary

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, rh Amber

Rutley, David

Sandbach, Antoinette

Scully, Paul

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Simpson, rh Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Royston

Soames, rh Sir Nicholas

Solloway, Amanda

Soubry, rh Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mark

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Graham

Sturdy, Julian

Sunak, Rishi

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Thomas, Derek

Throup, Maggie

Timpson, Edward

Tolhurst, Kelly

Tomlinson, Justin

Tomlinson, Michael

Tracey, Craig

Tredinnick, David

Tugendhat, Tom

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, rh Mr Andrew

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Walker, Mr Robin

Warburton, David

Warman, Matt

Watkinson, Dame Angela

Wharton, James

Whately, Helen

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, rh Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Craig

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wood, Mike

Wragg, William

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Julian Smith

and

Simon Kirby

Question accordingly negatived.

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29 Feb 2016 : Column 788

29 Feb 2016 : Column 789

29 Feb 2016 : Column 790

Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Pension Fund

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

10.9 pm

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and my position as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union Parliamentary Group. I have secured this debate tonight to bring to the attention of the House the pension fund of employees of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Let me thank the three trade unions that have a membership interest—PCS, Unite the Union and Prospect—for raising these concerns with me and other right hon. and hon. Members, as well as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) who serves on the Commission, and the Leader of the House for their helpful information. I must say at this point that I was disappointed with the communication that I received from the War Graves Commission director-general, to which I will return.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for more than 1,700,000 casualties of the first and second world wars in cemeteries and memorials at more than 23,000 locations in over 150 countries. Indeed, I have two war grave locations in my own constituency. The commission employs more than 1,300 staff worldwide; approximately 250 of whom are on UK-based contracts. Negotiations are also currently ongoing with Ministry of Defence to include non-war related graves in the work of the commission.

Staff of the commission take pride in attending to the war graves. It is not just a job, but a way of life and a vocation. Many are from families who have worked for the commission for generations, and many spend their whole working lives in the service of the commission. Jobs at the commission range from gardeners, maintenance and stonemasons to administrators, supervisors, managers, archivists and historians. It is not uncommon for staff to progress through a variety of those roles in the course of their career, re-training and adapting to the needs of the job. There is often a large element of foreign travel and the work can entail working and living abroad for years and even decades; requiring staff to uproot families and learn new languages to adjust. That can have a financial impact too, as spouses have often been unable to have careers. It is disappointing therefore to receive correspondence from the director-general which said that it is hard to argue that our gardeners should enjoy better terms of employment than nurses or members of the armed forces.

Salaries at the commission have also been very modest. A recent Towers Watson global grading and pay review found a need to up-rate salaries, leading to most getting an increase of between 1% and 1.5%, or a 1.5% lump sum. Those on the lowest grade were given a minimum £450 increase. Although that is welcome, it nevertheless reflects the fact that salaries over the years have not been commensurate with the job. However, despite some of the sacrifices, staff at the commission remain committed to delivering a high level of service. Most recently, the commemorations of the first world war have required staff to work over and above their normal commitments.

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Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House. The number of Members present in the Chamber is an indication of the importance of the subject. In my constituency, we have between 60 and 70 war graves, which are looked after by the War Graves Commission, and they are very important to us in Strangford. What concerns me is that there is a need to have the pensions and the wages correct across the whole of the Commonwealth, not just in the United Kingdom. Does he think that we should look after those graves in the Commonwealth as well as in other parts of the world?

Chris Stephens: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with him.

To recognise the special nature of the job, the loyalty of staff and the financial sacrifices staff have made over the years, the commission has held a final salary pension scheme, ensuring financial security for staff who have spent their lives in dedicated service to the commission. The terms of this scheme are good with a low employee contribution, a spouse’s pension, death in service and lump sums based on final salary—40/60ths. That reflects the fact that the pension has traditionally been one of the most important conditions of service, recognising years of dedication and loyalty.

In December 2014, however, the CWGC announced the intention to close the final salary pension scheme in April 2016 and move staff to a far less favourable defined contribution scheme, the Group Pension Plan. The terms of this scheme are much higher employee contribution, lower employer contribution and less of a pension pot at the end. The changes will see a drastic reduction in the pensions of 180 long-serving staff, with some losing more than £6,000 for every year that they draw their pension. The introduction of the new pension will also see a reduction in employer contributions from the current 22.4% of salary to a limit of “up to 15%”. On average, employer contributions will likely be much lower as the 15% rate can be reached only when employees significantly increase their contributions in turn. That came just two years after the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had closed the final salary scheme to new entrants, promising:

“Closure of the scheme to new members does not have a negative impact on the funding of the existing pension scheme…The current pension scheme remains in a relatively strong surplus position when assets and liabilities are calculated on a long term actuarial basis.”

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): My hon. Friend is making a profound speech that chimes with some of the history books that I have read. He is right that the Government will find a lot of money for weapons, but they find less money for the wounded, and it is disappointing and sad that for the dead there is less money still. The facts that my hon. Friend is discussing go contrary to the sweet words that are often said about remembering and honouring the dead in Chambers such as this.

Chris Stephens: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I shall come on to say more about the position of the scheme.

The news of the closure of the final salary scheme has come as a terrible shock to long-serving staff, with more than 50% of those affected within 10 years of

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normal retirement age, leaving little time to readjust. For some, that has meant completely changing retirement plans as they can no longer afford to retire or as key assumptions such as being able to pay off a mortgage are no longer the case. Staff feel betrayed that what was promised to them for years is suddenly being snatched away.

Let us consider the financial position. In the commission’s statement of accounts of March 2014, the key numbers show a surplus of £1.4 million on income of £67 million, with balance sheet reserves up from £4.3 million to £7.2 million and net current assets up from £1.5 million to £2.2 million. The balance sheet shows an improvement in reserves of £2.9 million, due largely to the improvement of £2.6 million in the pension deficit from £8.3 million to £5.7 million. In its 2015 accounts, the position had changed. The balance sheet showed a deficit of £6.1 million, having been in surplus by £6.7 million in March 2014. The reason was a sharp increase in the deficit shown in the pension scheme, a deterioration of £13 million in the year, taking the deficit to £18.6 million. The background is the effect of the recent three yearly valuation, which reflected a collapse in the forecast interest rates for the pension fund investments.

My first question to the Minister is: what investments resulted in this change from 2014 to 2015? Despite the commission announcing its intention to close the pension scheme in December 2014, formal consultation with the three trade unions representing staff at the commission—PCS, Prospect and Unite—did not start until June 2015. During the consultation period, the trade unions took a reasoned and helpful approach, proposing numerous alternatives in an attempt to find a solution that both recognised the financial position of the commission and mitigated the most detrimental effects on staff. However, the commission rejected all the proposals, remaining resolute on closing the final salary scheme and moving to a defined contribution scheme.

Proposals were numerous and wide reaching and included increasing member contributions to enable the scheme to stay open. The initial proposal put forward by the trade union side, a proposal that directly addressed the commission’s concerns about the pension scheme deficit and about future risk in the scheme, was as follows. First, it proposed a cap on pensionable earnings for future service with effect from 1 April 2016, which would immediately address the pension scheme deficit by enabling a downward revision of the actuarial costs of the scheme. Secondly, it proposed to increase member contributions from 1.5% to 5%, phased in over the next two years. Thirdly, it suggested that the decision on the closure of the scheme should be postponed for three years, linked to a further valuation of the scheme during 2018. That would enable a considered and measured review of the scheme’s funding, taking account of the previous two proposed measures, both of which would have a positive impact on past service deficit and future service costs. These proposals were rejected almost immediately, with no costing done by the commission, leading the trade unions to believe that the consultation was hollow and the commission was intent on closing the final salary scheme regardless.

The final proposal from the trade unions was the option of CWGC UK-based staff transferring to the civil service Alpha pension scheme, as provided for under the Cabinet Office’s New Fair Deal. We are aware that

29 Feb 2016 : Column 793

many scheduled bodies including English Heritage, the Churches Conservation Trust, the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Imperial War Museum and the British Council have been permitted to join the new civil service pension scheme.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I declare an interest as a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the Adjournment debate tonight and I hear what he says, but what he has just suggested was considered. It was not possible, and if people had been transferred to the civil service scheme, the terms offered to them would have been worse.

Chris Stephens: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He has spoken to me about that privately and I have asked questions about it. His comments are surprising because of the aggregate accrual rates in the Alpha scheme. One of the problems is that there has been no discussion of the actuarial variations between the trade unions and those representing the commission in the talks. I hope the hon. Gentleman will use his good offices to put that right.

The commission’s response was to assert that CWGC staff are not civil servants, making them ineligible to join the Alpha scheme. However, the Office for National Statistics details the CWGC as part of the MOD accounts, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs also lists CWGC staff as civil servants. In fact, the CWGC tends to pick and choose when the civil service hat fits. For example, the 1% pay cap in the public sector is often cited in pay talks as a reason to keep down pay rises.

The trade unions believe that they were never given a satisfactory reason why the CWGC did not apply for admittance as a scheduled body under the Government’s New Fair Deal policy. Instead of putting forward a case for staff to join Alpha, the commission seemed to decide in advance that they were ineligible to join and then sought confirmation of this from the MOD. The commission’s unwillingness to engage and seek alternatives that would mitigate the financial impact on staff was demonstrated throughout the consultation.

Trade unions repeatedly asked for more information to inform the consultation and aid the consideration of alternatives. However, the commission declined to offer that information, and the trade unions had to conduct much of the consultation without key information. For example, they requested an anonymised breakdown of how the new scheme would financially affect each member of staff, crucial information that would allow unions to see the impact of the proposals and help them put forward alternatives. That request was declined, leaving the unions no option but to ask members to send in their individual statements and to piece them together to form an overall picture.

Staff representatives were denied access to key decision making meetings at which they had requested the opportunity to put forward the case to keep the scheme open. The unions wrote to the commission asking to attend the meeting on 9 December 2015 when the commission put forward its case for closing the scheme to the board of commissioners. The commission wrote back to say that the unions’ attendance would be “inappropriate”.

Despite the trade unions raising numerous concerns and offering reasonable alternatives, the decision to close the final salary scheme appears to have been a fait

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accompli. The commission made the final decision in December 2015 to go ahead and close the scheme in April 2016. As staff have mentioned, the pension scheme has always been a way of attracting and retaining staff in the commission, and it has featured strongly as part of the overall benefits package that staff have signed up to when joining. To take it away after years of service, when staff are so painfully near retirement, is just unfair. Long-serving staff have put up with great disturbance and sacrifice to their family lives, such as moving to foreign countries. Spouses and partners have often been unable to have careers as a result, and the pension that commission staff accrue should recognise that

Approximately 60% of those affected by the changes are 50 years old or more, so they could be retiring within the next 10 years. Staff within a few years of retirement now have little time to re-adjust their financial planning for retirement, as the alternative Group Pension Plan will not deliver anything like the benefits of the final salary scheme. When changes were made to the civil service pension schemes, protection was given to staff nearing retirement, in recognition of the fact that they would have made financial plans based on the assumption of their existing pension entitlement. That protection has not been offered to staff at the commission.

Closure of the scheme from 1 April 2016 will have a significant detrimental effect on the future pensions of UK-based staff and will cause considerable unrest among employees at a time when they are working hard to further enhance the reputation of the commission with the work on the 1914 to 1918 centenary commemorations. The changes also come at the exact time when workers currently contracted out of the state second pension, as staff in the commission are, will see national insurance contribution increases of 1.4%. From April 2016, staff transferring to the GPP scheme will therefore have the dual disadvantage of paying national insurance increases and pension contribution increases of up to 5% for the new scheme. Closing the final salary pension scheme will create financial difficulty for the commission’s longest-serving, loyal staff, who have sacrificed much for the commission over the years.

The trade unions believe that they have adopted a constructive approach to finding alternatives. However, the commission has refused to make any meaningful changes to its initial position to mitigate the financial impact on staff.

Mr Kevan Jones: I do not want to get into a dialogue about this, but I have to say that that is not true. The final scheme was changed, including to help lower-paid staff over the next three years, so changes have been made. I also have to say that I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of the negotiations, because the trade unions did meet the vice-chair and the secretary-general.

Chris Stephens: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure that is a discussion he and I can continue to have.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. First, has the decision to close the scheme already been made or is it the case that, in the words of the Leader of the House in a letter to me on 24 February 2016:

“The Commission has undertaken a consultation and is now considering in detail the range of responses received but no decision has yet been taken”?

29 Feb 2016 : Column 795

Secondly, what is the current deficit of the scheme, as of today’s date? Lastly, given what I have outlined in relation to industrial and employee relations, does he not agree that we should ensure that talks begin between the commission and the trade unions—hopefully with ministerial involvement—to share information and actuarial evidence properly and to reach a solution that could be agreed by both sides?

10.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mark Lancaster): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. I must confess that I find myself in a slightly difficult position, because I have no direct responsibility for this issue, for reasons that I will explain. However, I am determined, as ever, to help in any way I can. Although the hon. Gentleman has asked a number of detailed questions, some of which I hope to be able to address this evening, I will of course write to him in due course about any that I am unable to answer, having approached the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on his behalf.

Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): I declare an interest as a parliamentary commissioner on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate, which of course was based, quite naturally, largely on submissions from the trade unions. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is very difficult for him to respond to this debate, because the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is independent and its funding comes not only from Britain but from half a dozen other Commonwealth countries? I have to say that my impression, through my fellow commissioner, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has been involved in the negotiations, is that the commission has bent over backwards, and in very difficult financial circumstances.

Mark Lancaster: Indeed. That is what I was trying very gently to say. None the less, I am keen to help. In fact, the two parliamentary commissioners, sitting on either side of the House, are in many respects much closer to the issue than I am.

The pension arrangements of the commission’s employees are ultimately a matter for the commission’s senior management and for trustees of the scheme. The concerns of the hon. Member for Glasgow South West should, in the first instance, rightly be directed to the commission, which, it must be emphasised, is not even a UK-run organisation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) said. None the less, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate, not least so that I can pay tribute to the commission for its work before I get on to the issue of pensions.

I am sure that, like me, many hon. Members will have visited one or more of the cemeteries and memorials that are so well cared for by the commission. It is certainly true to say that the commission provides the gold standard in care and that the sites under its care, wherever they may be, are always as well and as lovingly cared for as possible.

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Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): Will the Minister give way?

Mark Lancaster: I am not going to give way, because I am going to run out of time. The hon. Lady will have to forgive me.

I have been privileged to visit several sites in recent years, including in northern France and on Ascension Island. I have also visited Stanley cemetery in the Falklands, with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), and Stanley cemetery in Hong Kong, which is without doubt one of the most striking cemeteries in the world, with its views over Stanley harbour. I often sat there to reflect during my service in Hong Kong.

It would be beneficial to remind ourselves of the origins of the commission. As hon. Members might be aware, it was established by royal charter on 21 May 1917. The provisions were then extended by a supplemental charter on 8 June 1964. In accordance with its royal charter, the commission has the task of commemorating the Commonwealth war dead of the two world wars by making fit provision in perpetuity for their graves and memorials, and of maintaining records of the dead.

The commission ensures that 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten, and it cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries. It is worth pointing out that, within the United Kingdom, it helps us to commemorate more than 300,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women, with their graves numbering 170,000 in more than 13,000 locations across the country.

I would like to take this opportunity to point hon. Members to the commission’s website, which, among other things, details the locations of the more than 140,000 graves that it tends in the UK. People tend to think of the commission in terms of precise ranks of graves in cemeteries on the western front, but there is hardly a town anywhere in the country, let alone a constituency, that does not contain at least one grave tended by the commission.

In this year, when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, it is particularly poignant to remember that those graves and memorials allow us to connect with not just the conflicts of the past, but the people caught up in those conflicts. That reminds us of the cost of such conflicts and of the individuals who paid the ultimate price, and it gives us a very human connection with history.

As I mentioned at the start of my speech, the commission is not a UK-run organisation. Its cost is shared by the member Governments, consisting of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom, in proportions based on the number of their graves. That results in the UK contributing almost 80% of the total funding, which was in excess of £47 million in 2015. In addition, the Ministry of Defence provides £1.3 million to the commission for the cost of maintaining 20,000 Boer war graves in South Africa and a further 21,000 non-world war graves around the world.

The commission’s day-to-day operations are overseen by the vice-chairman, Air Chief Marshal Sir Joe French; the high commissioners of member Governments; and eight commissioners drawn from the armed forces, the two largest UK political parties—currently those two commissioners are the hon. Member for North Durham

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and my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland—and individuals who bring particular knowledge and experience.

Turning to the issue at hand—the pension fund of employees of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission —I need to be clear that, as an independent Commonwealth body established by royal charter, the commission has no requirement on it to consult Her Majesty’s Government on day-to-day operational matters, including the terms and conditions of its UK workforce. However, as a key stakeholder in the commission, the MOD was consulted on the issue and agreed with the decision to consult about the closure of the scheme.

Formal consultation on commission pensions commenced on 8 June 2015. The commission met the trade unions representing UK employees on five occasions and wrote on a further three occasions, providing detailed responses to alternative proposals that were put forward. I can confirm that all the trade union proposals were costed by the commission’s actuarial advisers, so they were certainly not dismissed out of hand.

The consultation period was extended by two weeks at the request of the trade unions to accommodate annual leave commitments. It closed on 14 September 2015 without agreement being reached. Subsequent to the consultation period, further meetings with the trade unions took place on 23 November and 4 December 2015. Following the consultation, the commission has agreed to the closure of the superannuation scheme with effect from 31 March 2016, and has agreed that members will be automatically enrolled into the commission’s alternative group personal pension scheme with a period of enhanced contributions.

Chris Stephens: Will the Minister give way?

Mark Lancaster: Of course, but I am running out of time.

Chris Stephens: What the Minister says seems to be in direct contradiction with the letter I have from the

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Leader of the House, which says that no final decision has been made. Can he comment on that?

Mark Lancaster: I am happy to clarify that. The members of the scheme will have been notified of the closure, as have the trades unions and trustees. Crucially, I understand that the decision was taken against the background of a 60% increase in the cost of the scheme since 2005, a growing scheme deficit, and a further increase in funding stemming from the 2014 statutory valuation of the scheme. The commission has made it clear that it is unable to meet the additional costs of approximately £1 million a year without a detrimental impact on its core task of commemoration. It is clear that the only way to make such savings would be to place many jobs at risk, as the vast majority of its budget is spent on horticultural labour. As the commission is an organisation funded by six Commonwealth nations, its UK employees represent less than a quarter of its workforce of 1,250. The closure of the superannuation scheme has an impact on approximately 180 of those employees, whose terms and conditions of employment are ultimately a matter for the commission, not the Government.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s funding has been maintained over many years, and this Government have recognised in the House its important and sacred mission. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in commending the commission for its outstanding and vital work. However, I must reiterate that the issue of pensions for the commission’s employees is one for the commission and its trustees rather than the Government. I understand the concerns that have been raised in this debate, and a couple of outstanding questions need to be answered. I am happy to engage with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on behalf of the hon. Gentleman, and I will write to him in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

10.36 pm

House adjourned.