Interview: Jonathan Spencer

20 February 2015

Jonathan Spencer chairman, Church of England Pensions Board

Being chair of the Pensions Board occupies about one day a week. It's a part time non-executive role. I chair the meetings of the board itself, and attend many of the board committee meetings. 


I work with the chief executive to develop strategy,
and to provide her with a sounding-board. I plan board agendas with her and the board secretary, and make sure that the major decisions we take are well prepared and taken in a timely way. I work with my counterparts in the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops' Council on matters of common interest, and act as an ambassador for the board at General Synod and elsewhere. 


I'm retired, multiply employed and self-employed - simultaneously.
Since I left the Civil Service about ten years ago, I've done a variety of part-time non-executive jobs. As well as chairing the Pensions Board, I'm currently deputy chair of my local hospitals trust, a member of the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission (which regulates financial services there), and chair of governors of a local school. I've also been a director of an insurance company until recently, and a member of the regulatory body for solicitors; and I do some other things for the church locally. 


The Pensions Board exists to provide clergy and other church workers good-quality pensions.
The bill to dioceses and other church employers is significant, because good-quality pensions are not cheap. In addition, we're paying off a deficit from earlier years, and everyone is living longer. 


We manage pension funds of approaching £2 billion to fund future pension payments.
We must manage the pension schemes prudently in the interests of the beneficiaries, but we also aim to manage the funds so as to keep down the cost to employers, without exposing them to undue risk. In the end, it's for the General Synod to decide the balance between quality of pension offered and its affordability. We also have charitable funds of some £100 million, which are principally used to provide retirement housing for clergy who need it.


As we live longer, in better health,
so both the need to retire and the economics of retirement and pensions point toward later retirement ages for many; but this has to be done flexibly to take account of different personal and health circumstances. And the Church of England relies heavily on the continued active ministry of retired clergy. 


Financially, we have to balance the number of years people work
and contribute to their pensions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the number of years they draw their pensions after their formal retirement date. 


I grew up in Bournemouth
and studied science at university, though my parents were both art-college teachers. I'm married to Caroline, who has been a lay member of General Synod for nearly 20 years. She's also a lay member of the Canterbury Cathedral Chapter, and contributes much around the diocese, too. We live near Canterbury, and have three grown-up children, all involved in the performing arts. I'm also a keen musician myself: I play the viola. 


My energy is partly inherited and partly good fortune,
and I've always had a foot in both of C. P. Snow's Two Cultures camps. As a child, I was clearly seen as a potential scientist, but I grew up in a household of artists, and my wife is a historian by training; so she's stimulated my interest in things historical. 


I'm gradually reducing the number of things I do,
but I don't expect to be fully retired before I'm 70. It's important not to stay too long in any one role, and to keep moving on, to find new interests and challenges. 


I enjoy trying to keep the house up and the garden down
- we have quite a lot of both - and much enjoy living where we do. I love the sound of house martins that nest under the eaves of our house. 


We like travelling in France,
Italy, and the Scottish Highlands. 


The decisions of the hospitals trust board of which I am a member are genuinely strategic.
We have to balance the funds available to us against the number of staff we employ, to deliver a high-quality service. Always you have to achieve the best you can with what you've got. 


We have about a million interactions with patients every year.
You must aim for them all to be perfect, but you know not all can possibly be so; so it's about managing risks, learning from mistakes, approaching patients with compassion. Quite a lot of my professional background in the civil service was finance; so the general principles were straightforward.


If you've been a senior civil servant,
you have to have learnt how to pick up new and complicated things very quickly. I led the country's insurance regulation for some years, and didn't have any experience of this before I took it on. But I had good support from staff, and I'm reasonably bright, and reasonably quick on the uptake. You talk to expert people to find out what they do and how things work, and apply your own judgement. 


I started off as a school parent-governor 25 years ago.
You're doing three things as a school governor: holding the head to account for the quality of education, seeking to ensure resources are used to good effect, and helping with strategy. These are the classic functions of a non-executive role. 


I'm very rarely angry.
Anger doesn't help much to find solutions to the myriad of problems the world faces. If I am angry, it is usually about life's trivia, such as wrecking a car tyre in a pothole. 


If I could change two things in the world?
I would reduce inequalities at home and globally. And I would decarbonise energy production by 2050. 


Anyone who's a Christian has to be concerned about the disparity of wealth across the planet.
How much any of us can do anything about it is another thing. But at a personal level I think you have to try to do what you can to ameliorate it. 


The challenge of climate change
is that its effects are felt decades after the emissions that cause them. This makes it particularly difficult for governments and policy-makers, because it requires unpalatable actions now to avert harm to society many years later. The planet will become a markedly less pleasant place for people to live if we don't address this challenge significantly over the next decade. Western society as it's developed is heavily dependent on cheap and easily accessible supplies of energy; so it's a very big challenge.


As it happens, the Pensions Board,
the Church Commissioners, and Archbishops' Council - the National Investing Bodies [NIBS] - some years ago created the Ethical Investment Advisory Group [EIAG]. The EIAG is working intensively on a report, likely to be published later this year, giving its advice to the NIBs on how they should respond to the challenge of climate change. We seek to engage with businesses whose ethics we don't altogether share rather than to disinvest. I shouldn't pre-empt the EIAG's advice on climate change, but you can expect a similar approach here. 


We've tried to make changes at a personal level, too.
My wife is insistent that we avoid flying if we can, because decarbonising aviation is probably the hardest bit to do.


I'm happiest when I'm walking with Caroline,
and my family if they're around, in beautiful countryside around the Stour valley where we live, or anywhere on holiday. 


My family influenced me most, of course.
But my physics teacher kindled my interest in science for the next decade, and, more surprisingly, my interest in government, where I ended up working for 30 years. The head of modern languages at school never taught me French, but did teach me the viola. And the late Michael Saward, our vicar in Ealing, where we lived when we were first married, brought me to faith.


I have a particularly soft spot for the autobiographies of Leonard Woolf,
which I first read in my twenties. He was a man of huge personal integrity and honesty, who founded the Hogarth Press, and was influential in helping the emergent Labour Party between the wars to grapple intelligently with foreign-policy issues. And he has a remarkable prose style, which is both spare and discursive. 


I pray for the health and happiness of family and friends,
and for a more peaceful world. 


If I was locked in Canterbury Cathedral, I'd probably choose to be with Archbishop Lanfranc,
who rebuilt the cathedral after the Norman Conquest. As well as exploring the nature of the life spiritual, as lived in the fairly lawless world of the 11th century, it would be fascinating to get his reaction to the soaring Gothic and Perpendicular forms of the later cathedral.


Jonathan Spencer was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Correction: the website for Inclusive Church (Interview, 6 February) is www.inclusive-church.org.uk

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