We should hear within the next few days the team on ministers and junior ministers that will support Chloe Smith, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Will Guy Opperman be reappointed to his post as Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion or will there be a new face in charge? I have been thinking about this and I’m setting am setting out my thoughts below.
It’s clear from Opperman’s recent posts that he welcomes Liz Truss and he appears happy to serve in her Government. But will that be enough?
Although the parliamentary party, Opperman included, favored Rishi Sunak during the early stages of the leadership election , it became clear early on that the Conservative members favored Liz Truss. Liz Truss’ cabinet, including Chloe Smith supported Truss throughout. Logically, this strategy around appointments would continue down through Ministers and Junior Ministers.
However, there is a great difference between the strategic value of having your supporters in your Cabinet and the operational imperative of having continuity and competence in Junior Ministers. Guy Opperman’s short resignation prior to the resignation of Boris Johnson was ended because he was needed as Pensions Minister in the interim till a new leader was in place.
Opperman can point to having created a very full agenda for the remainder of this Government (assumed to be to the end of 2024).
In the very short-term, he is driving the Attention to Pension campaign, including work on increasing uptake of pension credit. Since its conception, the campaign has changed from an offensive to improve savings rates into workplace pensions into a more defensive approach where the importance of maintaining contributions in the face of cost of living pressures, is to the fore.
In the medium term, he is managing expectations about the delivery of the 2017 AE reforms which are due to be implemented in the middle of this decade. The likelihood of getting legislation on that through in this parliament is receding. However, Opperman’s work on the Mid-Life MOT and workplace education is a reasoned holding position.
While the auto-enrolment savings revolution continues to be a success, the cracks in the State Pension system are getting wider. Opperman’s predecessor Steve Webb, continues to find flaws in the DWP’s records on national insurance credits that suggest a major under-payment of pensions (mainly to women) and the need for substantial human resource to deal with the redress. While this is the unglamorous part of the job, it is one which will be even more expensive if done wrong. If Opperman is prepared to continue to take charge of this, then Liz Truss and Chloe Smith should not look a gift horse in the mouth.
Meanwhile, under Opperman, the DWP has become increasingly assertive in control of two key policy issues it has shared with the FCA. On value for money and in the choices people at retirement have in converting pot to pension , Opperman sees the DWP as setting the agenda. Taking on the FCA (and behind them the Treasury) is a courageous move from a junior minister. It is a mark of the respect that he has created for himself that he has been able to progress thinking on these matters (principally in focussing thinking on the Australian responses to its Royal Commission.
There are a number of major infrastructure changes in the pipeline. The first CDC scheme is due to go live early in 2023, we are in the middle of a review of the State Pension Age (under Baroness Fox) and we expect to see in 2023 the first visible signs of the new pension dashboards (though these are unlikely to be commonly available till the end of 2024).
However, many will consider the real “action” on pensions going on elsewhere than the DWP. The impact of the Pensions Annual Allowance on the morale of senior doctors in the NHS is a now a problem for former DWP Secretary, Theresa Coffey who has risen to a bigger role in charge of health and Deputy to Truss as Prime Minister. The surge in inflation is likely to make the restoration of the triple-lock a major strain on Treasury Finances, the cost of pension tax-relief and the even the burden of public sector pensions are likely to be in the line of sight of a radical Chancellor. All of this is outside Opperman’s remit.
With so much happening elsewhere, I would be surprised if an experienced hand at the tiller wasn’t welcome in pensions. While it is possible that a Truss inspired purge of junior ministries would see Opperman returning to the backbenches, it would be hard to see how a new minister would help her “get things done”. The incubation period for a pensions minister is a lengthy one, the time remaining till the end of this parliament not much more than two years.
If Opperman is willing to serve for the next two years, I hope he will be confirmed in post. But much will depend on whether another candidate for the position has emerged. Other than in the House of Lords, there is little expertise in pensions in the Conservative parliamentary group and what little there is, heavily associated with Rishi Sunak. So there is hope for continuity and Opperman , though we should make no presumption that he will survive the current purge.