No truly, I do agree, public sector DB pensions are not sustainable and don't suit today's work patterns and life expectancy. However, the changing pension landscape will mean that public sector salaries will have to be raised to recruit and retain. For example my husband will retire from the Civil Service this year after doing 35 years during which he brought in tens of £millions of revenue. His final salary as a Higher Executive Officer was £32,000 and his pension is £12,000. He chose pension, job security and lower levels of stress (he's also had serious health problems in the past which might well have lost him his job in some parts of the private sector) but he did have to sacrifice salary. It was a choice, not luck.
But I digress and am in danger of doing exactly what I said I wasn't going to do so here is the real subject of this post: "A Pensions Patchwork" - BBC Radio 4. I was sent the link by a friend and have been feeling intermittently incensed ever since.
I don't expect anyone who isn't a member of the LGPS to have the staying power to listen to the whole 38 mins of the programme (although actually maybe you should as it turns out that it is your money that's getting wasted). But in case you're short on time here is the introduction:
"In Canada, everything is big - including powerful pension funds such as the Ontario Teachers fund which owns half of Birmingham airport and other large projects around the world. It's all a far cry from the British pension scene, where a hundred local government pension funds each run their own affairs separately and pay costly fees to City firms for investment advice. Many of them still have financial deficits. Taxpayers have been forced to pick up bills to pay off those shortfalls and already hard-pressed local services have been stretched further. Lesley Curwen investigates how these individual funds are run and asks whether we should have larger funds with cheaper costs - like Canada does. And she asks whether more councils should be using pension money to invest in housing and infrastructure as a way to boost their local economies?
And here are the main points I took away from the programme:
- The LGPS is a "fractured, cumbersome" structure which, although it is to all intents and purposes one occupational pension scheme, is divided up into over 100 funds each having its own admin function, infrastructure and fund managers.
- On average the 89 funds in England and Wales are 21% underfunded which means there is a deficit of around £47 billion which can only get worse due to low interest rates and increasing life expectancy. The deficit has to be made up by the employer (ie the Local Authority and therefore the taxpayer).
- Local Authorities are already struggling with massive cuts to their budgets and this is yet another pressure on those budgets.The example of Birmingham City Council is given. The Council needs to make £101 million cuts due to loss of funding and it also owes the West Midlands pension fund £23 million to make up a deficit. The cuts will impact the flagship new library which is well used by tourists and locals alike. Weekly opening hours will be cut from 70 down to 40. 90 staff will be made redundant.
- The LGPS as a whole pays out a massive amount in fund management costs. A figure of £597 million is quoted for one year's costs and this figure does not include dealing costs which seem to be much higher than they need to be due to over trading by as much as 500%. Although there has been no detailed analysis made of the trading costs they could easily be adding another billion to fund management charges.
- Councillors are often ill-equipped to made informed investment decisions so they rarely challenge or question fund managers about performance.
- John Clancy, a Birmingham councillor has studied the costs in more detail. He found that costs had gone up 20% in just one year although returns had halved. He discusses the issue further along with Michael Johnson from the Institute of Policy Studies in a blog post here
- Unison officials are also very concerned and agree with financial experts who advise that larger, regional funds should be created which can then employ their own fund managers instead of paying independent managers and "funding the buildings in Canary Wharfe" .
- The last words go to Michael Johnson who calls the LGPS a "national embarrassment" whose structure "acts to the detriment of members and taxpayers". Unfortunately he isn't hopeful of change any time soon because "the vested interests that oppose change... are very considerable....Imagine the screams of pain from the Investment Management Industry and bear in mind how political parties are funded in this country and draw your own conclusions".
Despite public perception to the contrary, the true situation isn't a simple case of the typical local authority worker leeching the tax payer to fund her pension - that job is being done far more effectively (and cynically) by fund managers supplementing their already bloated salaries, aided and abetted by councillors making decisions on things of which they have very little knowledge.