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General Synod digest: C of E Pensions Board membership to be cut to 12

30 April 2021
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THE General Synod approved the Draft Legislative Reform (Church of England Pensions) Order 2021 on Friday afternoon.

The motion was brought by Canon Simon Butler (Southwark), who chairs the Legislative Reform Committee. A parallel Order concerning the Church Commissioners is to be debated in July. Both are intended to update governance, bring it in line with accepted standards, and remove legislative burdens that generate unnecessary complexity or cost.

Church of EnglandCanon Simon Butler

The Pensions Board was heavily regulated and exercised a regulatory function, Canon Butler said. The aim here was not to reduce accountability but to increase efficiency and tidy up anomalies after a well-resourced consultation and scrutiny stage.

The Trustee body was to be reduced from 20 to 12, Canon Butler explained, reflecting the Board’s commitment to regulation right across its structures. Nominated candidates would be required “to demonstrate their experience and potential contribution to the work of the Board, and only those who are suitably qualified would be offered to the electorate”.

A certain level of knowledge was required in a trustee, and the criteria were still to be selected, Canon Butler said. This could include an online course setting out what was expected of the post. Board members would now serve up to five years, and no member more than ten. References to the Clergy (Widows and Dependants) Fund had been deleted because provision had been transferred to the C of E Funded Pension Scheme. The Board would have to present its annual report to the Synod. The Order, he concluded, would result in the Board’s being “as well managed as it can possibly be”.

Bill Seddon (St Albans) noted that three members were to be elected by the House of Laity: something that should ensure best practice through an appropriate mixture of member involvement and professional expertise. The Board would be more directly representative of its members. “It will be important for them to understand what is required of them,” he said. While no one expected members to be experts, the envisaged 12-module tool kit would be “hugely beneficial”, he said. The proposals had the full backing of the current Pensions Board.

Deborah McIsaac (Salisbury), an elected member of the Scrutiny Committee, suggested that the shortened procedure around the legislation was not enough, and a fuller debate was needed.

Carl Fender (Lincoln) wondered whether this fast-track process was appropriate for reforms that sought to reduce membership of the Board. The full legislative process was needed for matters that had a wider constitutional significance, he said.

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford), a member of both the Legislative Reform Committee and the Scrutiny Committee, said: “We need our governance practice to be the best it can be. . . This [order] achieves this well. It has required extensive consultation and the process works.” Limiting the time served to ten years ensured space for new knowledge and expertise, she said. “It makes a lot of sense and improves the framework on which the Church works.”

Church of EnglandJulie Dziegiel (Oxford), a member of both the Legislative Reform Committee and the Scrutiny Committee

John Walker (Leicester), a new member of the Synod, believed the reduction in the number of members to be a retrograde step, as was the proportion of appointments by the two Archbishops. Independence was important, he said. He also found the setting of the quorum at four — one third of the membership — as “very odd”. The order had “the whiff of things being driven through”.

To this, April Alexander (Southwark) declared: “Hurray for newcomers! They really are valuable.” Trustees needed time for online learning, and firm direction, she suggested. In terms of length of service, the ten-year maximum was appropriate, given the point in the quinquennium at which an election might come.

The Revd Stephen Trott (Peterborough) said that, in the light of national pensions scandals, it was entirely inappropriate to have any pre-selection of candidates before appointment. “This should have been conducted by Measure,” he said, indicating that he would vote against.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) said that the Order was a misuse of simplification. The legislation had never been envisaged for this purpose. Disproportionate power was being given to the Archbishops. “It is placing too much power into too few hands.”

Clive Mather (ex-officio), a member of the Pensions Board, commended the Order for approval. He said that the Board had been working hard, and with great success, to be a responsible investor, and to improve its effectiveness.

“We need to do more as a Board,” he acknowledged. “Our governance is unwieldy and does not meet good practice. We wish to make changes we believe are appropriate and will ensure our reputation is intact. It is not an issue about taking power away from members — quite the opposite. It is to make sure that every penny we steward can be put to the maximum advantage. The Board works hard on your behalf. We believe we can do this better.”

Synod approved the Order by 217-45 with 29 recorded abstentions. It will now be laid before both Houses of Parliament pursuant to the Statutory Instruments Act 1946.

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