Tag Archives: Pensions

Double bubble

12 Oct

Unmesh Desai and friends

Unmesh Desai and ‘Team Newham’ celebrate

Back in September, overshadowed by the results of the leadership election and Sadiq Khan’s selection as the party’s candidate for mayor of London, Labour also announced the successful candidates for seats on the London Assembly – the body that scrutinises the activities of the mayor.

And it was good news for Newham’s Unmesh Desai, who won a six-way, almost all-male contest for the City & East nomination (just one woman made it to the shortlist – and she came last). Fittingly, he received exactly 666 first preference votes, and then enough second and third preferences to ensure he ultimately prevailed.

Barring an electoral earthquake Desai will take his seat at City Hall next May, where he will pick up an annual salary of £55,161 – a substantial rise on his current Newham pay of £43,711.

But happily for Councillor Unmesh – as he likes to be known – that is not the end of the good news. There is the enticing prospect of double-bubble.

There is no legal or party requirement for him to resign his council seat, so he will continue to collect at least the basic £10,937 allowance every year on top of his GLA salary. Should Sir Robin decide he cannot live without his friend’s sage advice on crime and disorder he can shovel yet more cash into the Desai bank account in the form of a ‘special responsibility allowance’.

This will then justify thousands of pounds more in pension contributions under Newham’s recently established (and legally dubious) ‘executive members’ scheme. London Assembly members are barred – like local councillors – from joining the Local Government Pension Scheme, so the timing of this new scheme is a happy coincidence.

Public service can be very rewarding, can’t it?

CORRECTION: The original version of this post stated that the City & East shortlist was all-male. Someone kindly pointed out that Hackney councillor Feryal Demirci is a woman – my sincere apologies to her for the mistake.

Pensions again

3 Sep

Professional Pensions has reported on Sir Robin’s decision to overrule the recommendation of Overview & Scrutiny (OSC) and proceed to spend £500,000 on developing a ‘special purpose vehicle for Newham’s pension fund.

Forest Gate South councillor Dianne Walls, one of the OSC members who called in the original decision, is quoted at length:

She is concerned about releasing the funds without reference to the Investment & Accounts Committee which “should really look at all of these things very closely”.

Walls believes it is important to look at the proposal in more depth rather than “spending lots of money without due process”.

She said: “It’s a matter of principal, mainly because there’s a lot of decisions made at cabinet and mayor level that have not been open and haven’t been scrutinised properly.”

She added: “As we’ve seen in the past, when decisions are made in haste or without due process, then we make mistakes and we lose money. This is not to say that this actual proposal is wrong – we just don’t know – we need to look at it very carefully before we commit half a million pounds.”

At a time when the council is being forced to make £50m in cuts, she said that spending public money without investigating properly raises the risk of making costly mistakes, which the council “cannot afford to make”.

Cllr Walls noted that call-ins are very rare – only two have been made in 12 years.

And both were on the subject of pensions.

Leader Knows Best

27 Aug

by Rachel Collinson

“I know how this vote is going to go. If the motion was ‘the earth is flat’ councillors Rokhsana, Seyi, Kay and Susan would vote 4-2 for it,” thunders Lester Hudson, as he eyes the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting.
I’m so offended and shocked by this that I can’t help snorting, despite being in the public gallery.

Hudson continues as though nothing has happened. “If the motion was ‘Geoffrey Boycott is useless at cricket’ they would vote 4-2 for it.” Nobody’s laughing this time. His tirade continues: “I sincerely hope this time, common sense will prevail, but I doubt it.”

There is general uproar, and the female councillors who have been the subject of these personal attacks are rightly livid. (Later on I realise that John Gray – also a member of the rebellion against the Robin Wales regime – is spared the vitriol. Could it be that the Y chromosome is a safeguard?)

A chap to my left passes me a sheet of lined A4 notepaper, with “Attendance Sheet” scrawled at the top. There is a name and one signature on it so far. I pass it on without signing.

A few minutes later, an unnamed lady shouts “Has everybody signed the attendance sheet?”

“I’ve never been asked this before as a member of the public in a council meeting,” I say, annoyed. “It doesn’t say on it how the data will be used, so I didn’t.”

“I just need to know who is here,” she replies.

Well, that much is obvious.

This meeting has been called because Newham Council’s Cabinet have seemingly approved a dubious investment proposal without oversight of the Investment and Accounts Committee. Councillors heard about it in passing and were horrified. They have decided to ask the Mayor to reconsider spending £500,000 without due process.

Council Officers will not let members of the public (or even certain councillors) see more details of what’s proposed. All we know so far is that the Cabinet are attempting to reduce payments to the council’s pension fund –  which already has a £238 million deficit – using a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’. We understand that the council is using some of their buildings as security on a risky investment. How do we know it’s risky? Because their financial advisors are warning them against it.

It seems common sense to me that if the proposal were common sense, then the Cabinet would not resort to bending the rules to avoid scrutiny.

What I am seeing in action here is the Labour belief that Leader Knows Best, and democracy is merely a frustrating blot on the master plan. The belief that the people ought to shut up and take their medicine. The belief that is shown up at its worst in the Executive Mayoral system.

This is further confirmed when a member of the public stands up and questions whether the chair should be asking loaded questions of his own committee. The offender, Anthony McAlmont, says that members of the public are not allowed to speak, despite having allowed an earlier question. For some reason this breach of meeting protocol goes unnoticed by the Legal advisor present.

I hear the words ‘p&%$-up’ and ‘brewery’ emanate loudly from elsewhere in the public gallery.

With dogged persistence, the female councillors draft a resolution that no more money should be spent until the investment and accounts committee has had a chance to review the proposal in more detail. In the end, the meeting vote is 5-1 for this motion.

Hudson warns this is a waste of time. What does he know that we don’t?

During this fiasco, I am reminded of the botched Labour leadership elections. You can vote for anything, as long as it’s the right choice.

As if to reinforce this, the Mayor rejects the motion day after.

It would be easy to despair right now. But I’m seeing a new movement emerging amongst the people of Newham. I see it in the snowballing, hopeful tweets about Jeremy Corbyn. I see it in the growing bravery of left-wing councillors against their bullying leaders. I see it in the swelling numbers of Newham Green Party.

And it’s almost reassuring to observe some councillors in utter denial of this growing trend. It means we will win, and soon.

If you’re interested in helping the Green Party challenge Labour’s one party state in Newham, do sign up here. (NB: We have a No Purge Promise™)

Rachel Collinson is acting membership secretary for Newham Green Party, and a former General Election candidate. 

More pensions malarkey

18 Aug

Bankers can’t believe their luck as Newham buys into another crazy scheme

Newham Council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee will meet next Monday (24 August) to discuss the council’s pension arrangements. Not the new scheme for councillor pensions this time, but the fund that pays for ordinary staff pensions.

Despite the current state of the council’s finances and the need to make significant cuts the Mayor has decided to spend up to £500,000 developing an asset-backed ‘special purpose vehicle’ (SPV) to finance its defined benefit staff pension scheme.  The idea is to give the scheme security over some of the council’s property portfolio, thereby allowing it to reduce its cash contributions.

At its last valuation in 2013 Newham’s pension fund was found to have a £298m deficit.

The decision to spend money developing the new asset-backed SPV was made without the agreement of the Investment & Accounts Committee, whose principal purpose is to oversee the council’s pension funds.

Cllr John Gray, who sits on the IAC, has raised concerns about this proposal and one pensions expert described it as “bloody dangerous”:

Have they learnt nothing from the City as to how not to do it? SPV-financing mechanisms were a significant part of what caused the financial crisis. 

[This] feels like they have been sold a pup by some City whizz. And where does this kind of financing arrangement (off balance sheet most likely) end?

Another expert, Judith Donnelly, told Professional Pensions magazine the half-million pound price “sounds excessive” and that

she would not normally expect it to cost that much to put an asset-backed structure in place

The government announced in its summer budget that if local authority pension funds do not pool their funds they will be effectively forced to do so. So any money Newham spends now investigating changes to its pension scheme could be wasted.

After the dreadful publicity surrounding the £560 million of hugely expensive LOBO loans the council has taken out and the stench emanating from West Ham United’s Olympic stadium deal, not to mention the naked self-interest of the new executive pension scheme, some backbench councillors are finally taking a proper interest in what’s going on. As Cllr Gray put it when speaking to Professional Pensions:

We should be extra careful not in invest in such complex products without the highest level of scrutiny.

That is why Overview and Scrutiny have ‘called in’ the decision. The request to do so was made by Little Ilford councillor Farah Nazeer, who also sits on the Investment and Accounts committee:

I am writing to request that you support my application to “call in” the decision by the Executive at the Cabinet Meeting on Thursday 23rd July 2015 (item 5) to spend up to £500,000 of public money on setting up an “Alternative Asset backed Financing for the Newham Pension Fund”.

I believe that this is the wrong sequencing for this decision because the proposal has not been consulted upon and agreed beforehand with the Newham Council Investment & Accounts Committee.

As a member of this committee I am concerned that this proposal may not be in the best interests of the Council nor the staff Pension fund and we might waste this £500,000 if the Committee decide that this proposal is not appropriate. I understand that the alternative asset proposal has significant risks attached to it which I feel merit proper scrutiny. 

It is inappropriate in principal for any such proposal to go ahead without the agreement of the Investment and Accounts committee beforehand.

I request that the Overview & Scrutiny committee should examine the arguments and consider making a recommendation back to the Executive that no further expenditure of public funds is made until the Investment and Accounts committee have had a chance to fully consider the proposal and are made aware of all  the possible costs and benefits of the scheme.

All Overview and Scrutiny meetings are open to the public. Next Monday’s is at 6:30 at East Ham Town Hall.

Ultra vires

11 Aug

The Local Government Association has weighed in on the subject of pensions for elected councillors.

It has obtained legal advice to clarify whether a council can make contributions to an alternative pension for its elected members following the changes brought about in April 2014 by the last government that specifically excluded them from the existing local government scheme.

In essence, the advice says they can’t (my emphasis added):

Under the Pensions Act 2008, we consider that councillors generally would be excluded from the definition of those entitled to receive pensions, as they are office holders. They are not workers as they do not have a contract of employment nor any other contract by which they undertake to do work or perform services personally for another party to the contract. This means that Councils cannot rely on the general power of competence under the Localism Act 2011 but must rather have a specific power in order to make such a payment…

… The general power of competence under S1 Localism Act 2011 does not permit a Council to do anything which it was specifically prohibited from doing prior to the Act, or which has been specifically prohibited after the legislation was passed. The changes to the pensions legislation were explicit and postdate the Act.

If Councils do chose to make such payments it is likely that they will be acting in a way which is ultra vires.

Councillor John Gray has contacted Newham’s monitoring officer to express his concern about this. He has also requested to see the internal legal advice provided to the mayor and shared with cabinet prior to their deciding to introduce the new scheme.  As he notes on his blog, this has been refused.

Given that Cllr Gray is a member of the Investment and Accounts Committee, which “looks in detail at how the Council’s superannuation (pension) funds are managed,” this is outrageous. Three other members of the committee are full-time councillors who will potentially benefit from the scheme: Forhad Hussain, Andrew Baikie and deputy mayor Lester Hudson. In any future discussion about executive member pensions they will have the advantage of having seen the advice which is being denied to their backbench colleagues. The chances of an informed debate are slim.

But we know from experience what will happen next. 

In the face of legal advice he doesn’t like Sir Robin will simply commission more. At our expense, obviously.

If this turns into a fight with central government he will lawyer up and the bills will run into tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of pounds They may end up being more than the cost of the pension scheme itself.

So for local taxpayers it’s ‘heads they win; tails we lose.’

The geezer is underpaid

23 Jul

Sir robin wales labour hand up for more money

Hands up if you think you’re underpaid on £81,000 a year (photo: WorldSkills)

by Iain Aitch

‘The geezer is underpaid’ is not a phrase you expect to hear from the Deputy Mayor of a Labour council when talking about his boss. You expect it even less when his boss, Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales, draws allowances of £81,029 per-annum and is asking Council Tax-payers where £50m of cuts should be made. 

Yet these are the words that came from the mouth of Councillor Lester Hudson at Wednesday evening’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) at East Ham Town Hall. Hudson said he was speaking on behalf of the Mayor as he attempted to justify how and why Wales should get a £10,858 pay rise, in the shape of a pension paid for solely by Newham residents. 

Once tax breaks were taken into account this would leave the Mayor with a council tax-funded income of £96,231. This is more than four-times the mean Newham salary that other councillors reported to the meeting. Hudson was adamant that Wales, full-timers and those who receive Special Responsibility Allowances (SRA) should receive a hefty 13.4% pension contribution from residents. The contribution from Wales and councillors? Zero. 

The meeting was discussing these pensions because the issue had been called in to the OSC by councillors concerned at just how this £600,000 spend over three years would make them look. Councillors Dianne Walls, Seyi Akiwowo and Kay Scoresby asked how this would appear to residents on the doorstep come election time, but Councillors Hudson, McAlmont, Vaughan and Noor argued that MPs get a generous pension, so why shouldn’t they? Vaughan asserted that they were as good as MPs; ironically, Noor decided they were better, even though it appeared that he did not know quite how pensions worked. 

Several members struggled with the concept that they were paid allowances for duties rather than actually being employees of Newham Council. Some had to be reminded more than once. They still remained puzzled. Hudson didn’t help by constantly referring to being an employee, even when he was regaling the meeting with tales of his Cambridge degree, his past as an accountant and how he could earn more elsewhere were it not for his selfless dedication to public service.

If there was a The Thick of It moment during the OSC it was when the big white book of meeting rules was pulled out and dusted off. Newham’s council meetings and committees are not places where dissent is a common occurrence and suddenly there was some. Computer says no. 

The chair, Councillor Anthony McAlmont, didn’t know quite what to do. The rule book was consulted. But it was clear there was more than a simple problem of pensions or procedure at play. The room was divided along gender lines, with Councillors Rokhsana Fiaz and Susan Masters joining the dissent. Female councillors spoke about the impact of austerity, the impact on residents and the probable illegality of the scheme being proposed. Male councillors spoke about how selfless they were and how much they were worth to the public. 

In tense exchanges, issues of childcare, meeting times and parental leave were raised by the women. Councillor Hudson expressed an opinion that those issues had already been discussed at Labour Group. Councillor Akiwowo face-palmed at this point. Fiaz rolled her eyes. Walls pointed out that no such discussion had occurred. Akiwowo came out fighting and impressed mightily. She had already rubbished the idea that huge pensions would attract a younger, more diverse set of councillors. “I’m not 55 and I am pretty diverse,” she said. But the point was lost on the old guard in the chamber. Hudson, unable to vote, left the room stating that he hoped ‘common sense would prevail’ to yet more eye-rolling, astonishment and opprobrium. 

At the meeting’s conclusion, all five women voted to recommend that the Mayor reconsider the pension scheme. All three men voted to say all was fine and dandy and when do the payments start?

The final decision as to whether to spend the £600,000 on pensions now rests with the Mayor. At a time when community centres are being closed, childcare facilities cut and repairs put off it would surely be embarrassing, even for this Mayor, to rub Newham residents’ faces in it, wouldn’t it? Let us see. 

Whatever the decision, it does now seem that the split within Newham Labour’s ranks is becoming visible. It was seemingly bubbling under even before the ink was dry on the ballot papers at the last council election, but now it is out in the open. We may finally have an opposition sitting in the council chamber, only not where anyone would have expected to find them, least of all Sir Robin. 

Iain Aitch is an author and journalist who lives in Newham. He has written for the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Financial Times.


Gold plated

15 Jul

At their meeting on 25th June the mayor and his cabinet colleagues took two important decisions. The first was to permanently close the Upton Centre, on the grounds that works required to re-open it are ‘unaffordable’. The second was to award himself and his advisors new, taxpayer-funded pensions.

In April 2014 the coalition government decided that councillors and elected mayors shouldn’t continue to be members the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). The reasoning being that councillors and mayors are not employees, but volunteers. The law was changed to freeze current membership at the end of each elected member’s term of office and stop new joiners. For sitting Newham councillors that meant that from the end of May 2014 they became deferred members of the LGPS with all rights frozen at that point. Councillors elected for the first time in May 2014 were ineligible to join.

Never ones to let the grass grow under their feet where personal remuneration is concerned, our councillors decided at their very first meeting after the election

That the Council should provide a pension scheme for elected members, which provides benefits as close as possible to those available under LGPS

They delegated authority to the heads of Legal and Finance to take the necessary steps to make this happen.

But what the mayor and his chums finally agreed last month is subtly different:

That the pension scheme would be made available to all Members in receipt of Special Responsibility Allowances (SRAs)

So only the mayor himself and those councillors he handpicks to be his advisors will be members of the new scheme. Ordinary backbench members will have no pension.

And they will have no say over this decision either. In an unstrange twist of fate it turns out that under an elected executive mayoral system this kind of decision is one for the mayor himself in consultation with his cabinet. This is not a matter for full council.

And happily the monitoring officer was also able to use Section 33 of Localism Act 2011 to relieve the mayor and cabinet from the restrictions of pecuniary interest by granting dispensation to them to participate in the discussion and then vote themselves flipping great wedges of cash.

The chosen scheme will be a

…Defined Contribution Pension with medium employers contribution rate of 13.4%

That 13.4% employers contribution is more than double the 6% that ordinary council staff now get. The self-serving greed is breath-taking. Sir Robin already receives an allowance of £81,029 per year. This new scheme will mean council taxpayers forking over an extra £10,858 per year in pension contributions to him alone. Add in the payments for his coterie of advisors and the bill balloons to hundreds of thousands of pounds between now and the next local election.

The justification being put forward for doing this is laughable.

This will act as an inducement to attract a wider range of economically diverse and younger (than the average age of 55) candidates, as stated in the 2014 report of the Independent Panel for Remuneration of London Councillors. That would improve representation across the borough and enhance democracy. It would also make it easier for existing councillors to take on more responsible posts that will require them to spend less time working outside the council.

This supports the Council’s resilience agenda through helping to promote a Strong and Cohesive Community and also to promote the Council as an Efficient and Trusted Organisation.

The lack of a Council pension didn’t stop Newham residents standing for election in 2014 – there were at least nine candidates in each of the 20 wards. Nor did it prevent new councillors becoming mayoral advisors or accepting SRAs. For example, Francis Clarke and Ken Clark went into Sir Robin’s cabinet immediately after the election and Hanif Abdulmuhit took an SRA as lead councillor for Green Street

Given that the mayor personally gets to decide who joins the cabinet and who gets an SRA it is bizarre to suggest pensions are needed as an incentive for people to stand for council. Even if elected there’s no guarantee they’ll ever join the gilded circle.

It’s also unclear that this is even legal. The Local Government Association has advised that it’s not and no other council in the country is planning to do the same thing.

At a time when community centres are closing and the council is looking for ways to save a further £50 million a year this is – at best – an extraordinarily tactless decision. At worst it’s a massive ‘fuck you’ to those that depend on council services.

Perhaps that’s why the Overview and Scrutiny committee has decided to ‘call in’ the decision. There will be an emergency meeting to discuss it next Wednesday (22 July) at East Ham Town Hall, starting at 5 p.m. It is open to the public.