With Philip Hammond staying on as Chancellor after the election, attention on new ministerial appointments can switch to who is moving in at the Department for Work and Pensions. The new Secretary of State is David Gauke and the new parliamentary under-secretary for pensions and financial inclusion is Guy Opperman.
Intriguingly Mr Gauke comes with a strong Treasury background having worked in a number of Treasury roles since 2010, most recently as Chief Secretary. While Mr Opperman was a Whip from 2015, he has some pensions experience as a member of the Public Bill Committee examining the Taxation of Pensions Bill in 2014 (that introduced pensions flexibilities). His new responsibilities will include not only State and private pensions but the State Pension age review and the creation of a single Financial Guidance Body.
Conspiracy theorists will be wondering if the arrival in the top job of a man who has cut his teeth in the Treasury signals that pensions tax reform is on the agenda. While the Secretary of State would certainly be one of the best qualified ministers to communicate HMT’s view where the DWP might have reservations about such a project, because the Government is dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for a majority, it would be ambitious to attempt to steer such a potentially contentious measure through Parliament. Although it might be capable of generating some cross-party consensus if presented on a “fairness” platform, the Government may be reluctant to risk measures that could antagonise its core support further following the electoral cold water poured on the social care and double lock proposals.
Increasing State Pensions in line with a double lock and changes to the Winter Fuel Payment look like being manifesto commitments that are dropped as a result of the anticipated agreement with the DUP, so the ministers’ views would appear academic here. Less controversially the department will have the opportunity to take forward some measures on defined benefit schemes and the Pensions Regulator is keen to see action here, calling in its response to the Green Paper, for “changes to our scheme funding powers, information gathering powers and the introduction of a DB chair’s statement” which would act “as a package”. Quite how much progress can be made will depend on the strength of any agreement with the DUP.
The Queen’s Speech, now scheduled for Wednesday 21 June, should give us an indication of how ambitious this Government hopes to be.