Party time: A round-up of this year's political party conferences

Autumn 2019 has seen a party conference season like no other, with the Brexit crisis overshadowing events and the parties gearing up for a General Election likely to happen sooner rather than later. But although the conferences were operating in campaign mode, with some new policies being announced, the subject of pensions was not particularly high up the agenda.

At the Conservative conference, held in Manchester during early October, the most high-profile mention of pensions came in a speech to conference by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Therésè Coffey. Within a short speech mainly focused on the benefits system, Coffey criticised Labour policies on tax and nationalisation, which she claimed would end up “costing pensioners thousands of pounds”; and contrasted this with policies with which the Coalition and Conservative governments have been associated over the past decade, along with a brief summary of future plans.

“Since 2010, we have increased the basic state pension by £1,600 a year,” said Coffey. “And since 2012, over 10 million people have been automatically enrolled in a workplace pension. We want to go further. We want to put people in control of their pension pots. We are ensuring the delivery of pensions dashboards so that people can see their savings online and in one place. We will take powers so we can send reckless business owners to jail if they plunder pension pots. And for the employees of The Royal Mail, we will make good on our commitments to help them deliver a new pension fund.”

Even in this exceptionally unpredictable political environment it does seem likely that the next Queen’s Speech delivered for a Conservative government will contain the Pensions Bill drafted by Pensions Minister Guy Opperman and his colleagues many months ago. In line with Coffey’s speech, the Bill seems certain to contain measures to support the dashboard, strengthen The Pensions Regulator’s powers and for the rollout of collective defined contribution (CDC) pensions.

But Coffey did not mention the regulation of DB consolidation schemes, or ‘superfunds’. In July 2019, Labour’s shadow Pensions Minister Jack Dromey, who has worked with Opperman on some aspects of the Bill, said he thought the government might not address superfund regulation in this Bill.

Were Labour to form the next government, it might present a fairly similar Pensions Bill in its own Queen’s Speech. The party did not make any specific policy announcements related to pensions at its own conference, held in Brighton in September. A spokesperson says that pensions policy commitments outlined in the 2017 General Election manifesto still stand. These include guaranteeing the triple lock for the state pension throughout the next parliament and legislating to ensure that accrued rights to the basic state pension cannot be changed.

In relation to the latter point, the manifesto also pledged to compensate women born in the 1950s whose state pension has been changed without their consent, for whom the WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) and BackTo60 campaigns have been running in recent years. At the time of writing, the High Court’s judicial review has just ruled against these women. Labour also promised a review of the state pension age; and protections for UK pensioners living overseas.

The Liberal Democrats had also made a pledge to the WASPI cause, saying that if the party was in government it would pay compensation to women affected in line with the recommendations of the parliamentary ombudsmen. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s review of test cases paused in June pending the judicial review ruling. The Liberal Democrats have also promised to protect the triple lock.

Overall, what was not said at these conferences – Coffey failing to mention either the triple lock or superfunds, or any mention by any politician of tax relief, for example – may turn out to be as significant as what was said. But although we will have to wait to see the parties’ election manifestos to get a clearer idea of their plans, there were some clear indications of the future direction of travel; and a perhaps surprising degree
of consensus.

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