£31 billion charge shines spotlight on £2.2tn pounds public sector pension liability

21 August 2020: Ministers insulated older employees from public sector pension reforms in 2015, despite advice saying not to. The courts found this was age discrimination, resulting in a £31bn charge in the Whole of Government Accounts.

When the Hutton review on public sector pensions reported in 2011, it recommended retaining the defined-benefit pensions provided to public sector employees. However, it wanted to reform how public sector pensions are calculated to reduce the cost to taxpayers, while at the same making them fairer for lower-paid employees. 

Recommendations included switching from final salary to career average for calculating pension entitlements, aligning the retirement age for most public sector employees with the state pension age, and increasing employee contributions.

The Hutton reforms followed a major cost saving already achieved in switching from RPI to CPI-linked increases for pensions in retirement, which resulted in a one-off gain of £126bn in the 2010-11 Whole of Government Accounts (equivalent to a 10% reduction in the gross pension liability at that time) as well as reducing the cost of providing pensions going forward. 

To protect existing employees, Hutton recommended that accrued rights at the date of the switch should still be calculated on final salaries, with only subsequent years of service accruing on an average salary basis. Retaining existing rights meant there was no significant gain or loss recorded when the reforms to existing pension arrangements were implemented in 2014 and 2015, with any cost savings arising in future years.

Despite the Hutton report explicitly stating that “age discrimination legislation … means that it is not possible in practice to provide protection from change for members who are already above a certain age”, the Government decided to provide transitional protection for older members. Full transitional protection was offered to workers 10 years or less away from retirement in 2012, with partial protection on a sliding scale tapering away to zero for those with 14 or more years to go until retirement at that point.

As might have been expected, given the clear advice in the Hutton review that this would constitute unlawful age discrimination, the UK Government lost in the Supreme Court in 2019 in the McCloud and Sargeant cases. As a consequence, employees that have lost out because the transitional protections did not apply to them will receive an uplift in their pensions when they reach retirement.

Illustrative example

To illustrate the issue, consider the case of fictional civil servants Sarah and Maxine who were 20 and 10 years away from retirement respectively in 2012 and who were moved into the new career-average ‘alpha’ pension scheme in 2015. Each is expected to retire with 30 years’ service on a final year salary of £80,000, following rapid promotions in their final 10 years of service.

Image of table with worked example. Click on link at the end of this post to for the article on the ICAEW website containing the table itself.

In this illustration, Maxine, who in 2012 had 10 years to go before retirement, should receive an initial pension of £40,000 a year when she retires in 2022, including a £500 transitional protection uplift. 

Without transitional protection, Sarah would expect to receive £34,000 a year when she retires in 2032. Although the precise details of the remedy in response to the court judgements is still being worked out (see HM Treasury consultation), it is likely that Sarah will now receive a transitional protection uplift covering the period from 2015 to 2022, potentially adding around £4,000 (based on our illustrative assumptions) to her pension on retirement, but still below what she would have received without the changes.

The court ruling will only affect employees who would have got more under the final salary arrangements. For a significant proportion of public sector workers, the faster accrual rate on a career average basis will provide them with a higher pension than they would have received under the slower accrual rate applied to final salary under the old arrangements. They will not have lost out from not having had transitional protection.

Spotlight on the £2.2tn public sector pension liability

The £31bn past service cost recorded in the Whole of Government Accounts in 2018-19 added 1.4% to the amounts owed to current and former public sector employees for their accrued pension rights, increasing the gross liability recorded to £2.2tn at 31 March 2019. (The Government separately reported that the court judgements would cost £17bn but did not explain how this number reconciled with the £31bn reported in the accounts.)

£2.2tn is a huge amount of money, equivalent to around £80,000 for each household in the UK. Most public sector schemes are unfunded (£1,756bn out of the £2,244bn gross liability) with pension payments funded out of future taxation. Local authority and other funded public sector schemes (£488bn) do have pension fund investments (£350bn at 31 March 2019) set aside to pay pensions, but they will need to increase their contributions to those funds to cover the cost of extending transitional protections to affected employees. 

There are no doubt many morals to be drawn from this story, but what it does highlight is the sheer scale of the pension obligations that public sector employers have built up over the years, and just how much a single ministerial decision can end up costing taxpayers.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.