Controversy as taxpayers' money used to fund catering and PR campaign in pensions row

8 July 2010 | last updated: 11 December 2015

A quango is under fire today for funding university employers to the tune of £627,000 to help them make the case for reducing their staff's pensions.

The Employers Pensions Forum (EPF), a group of university vice-chancellors lobbying for a greater contribution from members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on things like catering and a PR campaign.
 
The money, provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), bankrolled a number of reports looking at the future of the USS scheme. However, it also covered costs linked directly to EPF's PR offensive, as well as room hire and catering.
 
The biggest project, which totalled £334,000, included £60,000 to a pensions expert who backed EPF's position; £15,000 for a website; £16,000 on communications; £45,000 on legal advice and £10,000 on room hire and catering.
 
At a crunch meeting yesterday (Wednesday 7 July), the chairman of the USS Joint Negotiating Committee, Sir Andrew Cubie, used his casting vote to side with the EPF. That decision, taken following EPF's lobbying and PR campaign, means EPF's proposals will now be recommended to the USS Trust ahead of its meeting on Thursday 22 July.
 
The union says EPF's proposals would create a two-tier pension system, which would damage the recruitment and retention of university staff. The proposal to move staff to a career average scheme and away from a final salary scheme would see a typical new lecturer lose over £100,000 from their pension.
 
In response, UCU proposed an increase in members' contributions, an increase in the retirement age for new entrants to the pension scheme and a cost-sharing mechanism should future increases be required. A consultation process will follow the 22 July meeting and the union says all members of the USS scheme, not just UCU members, must then be balloted on both sets of proposals if future changes are to have any legitimacy.
 
UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Members of the USS pension scheme will be quite rightly appalled to learn that their taxes have been used to try and ruin their pensions. I imagine most people will be shocked to learn that taxpayers' money has been used by a universities' lobby group to fund a PR campaign and their catering.
 
'I think it is now essential that there is proper scrutiny and transparency for the rest of the process to decide the future of the scheme. If the changes are to have any legitimacy then there must be a full ballot of all USS members on both sets of proposals. A token consultation exercise with just universities involved will not fool anyone.'

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