From Pensions to Process, We Need to Raise the Level of the Debate

29/05/2016 20:58

As I tucked into my muesli this morning, the discussion on Radio 4's Today programme turned - as it does most days at the moment - to the issue of EU referendum.

Given the magnitude of the decision the British people are being asked to make on 23 June, and the possible impact of that decision, it is only right that the BBC and other media outlets are giving as much prominence to the EU question as possible. We need to have a national discussion about this issue. But it can't just be about noise: the debate needs to be as informed as possible, based on the facts, if we are to expect people to make an informed choice when they come to cast their vote.

This morning, sadly, wasn't a great example of an evidence-based debate. The specific subject was pensions, and the impact that Brexit would have on UK pensioners. Asking the questions was Justin Webb, and setting out the government's case was Pensions Minister Ros Altmann. Given the calibre of both interviewer and interviewee, you would expect a highly-charged, highly-informed debate.

Unfortunately, though, when the discussion turned to proposed EU rules on pensions, it became bogged down in bold assertions and bland statements. Webb insisted that new EU pension rules were a threat to British pensioners, and in response Altmann ummed and ahhed without really saying anything. I'm not sure anyone listening would have come away from that debate feeling more enlightened on the subject.

So here are the facts. Two years ago, the EU proposed a new law revising the way that pensions work across Europe. Their aim was to make cross-border pensions more attractive, so that people who work for companies that operate in more than one country - like BMW for example, who are headquartered in Munich but have factories in cities like Oxford, in my constituency - can keep paying into a single pension pot even if they move from the British office to the German one for a few years. As long as it is done well, this is an admirable aim - hoping to support an increasingly mobile workforce to avoid bureaucratic hassle or the risk of losing out on pension rights.

It was first drafted by civil servants in the European Commission. The law then has to pass through two sets of democratic checks: it must be amended and approved by MEPs like me in the European Parliament, and by representatives of elected national governments in the European Council. Only once a proposal has been approved by both bodies can it become national law.

Before the original proposals were drafted, there were rumours that the Commission might include some elements which would have made British pensions more expensive, although in the end these never materialised. When the proposal was published, it is true to say that there were still aspects that we didn't like. But that's a fact of all law-making, and the whole purpose of the democratic approval process is to ensure that the final product is as good as it can possibly be.

That's why I worked with people ranging from the Confederation of British Industry to the Trade Union Congress to make sure that the amendments I submitted to the directive were all intended to make the final law work as well as possible for British businesses, British workers and British pensioners.

The law is now almost finalised, with representatives from the European Parliament and national governments hammering out the final points. Those elements which were worrying from a UK point of view have been removed, and we amended the rules about protecting pension-holders and making sure they are fully informed about their rights and responsibilities without placing an unnecessary burden on companies.

On this, as on so many other areas where the EU is operating - from combatting tax avoidance, to tackling climate change, to protecting consumers - the system works. A rough draft of a proposal is put forward by technical civil servants, and then democratically-elected representatives fine-tune it until a compromise is reached that works for as many people as possible - just as happens in Westminster all the time.

Unfortunately, you wouldn't have known any of that from the radio this morning. Instead, you'd have got a vague sense that something European and threatening was on the horizon when it comes to pensions, and that the UK's own pensions minister couldn't do much about it. That simply isn't true, and it does a disservice to the millions of people across the country who are trying to make their way through a fog of opinion and assertion in order to grasp the tangible facts they need in order to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives. For their sake, we all need to raise our game.