Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein amendment rejected as pensions bill clears latest stage

Change Image copyright PA
Image caption The bill links the public sector pension age to the state pension age

A bill to make major changes to public sector pensions has passed its further consideration stage at the assembly.

The Public Service Pensions Bill aims to move pensions to a model based on average earnings with the public sector pension age linked to the state pension age.

It may affect teachers, civil servants and health, fire and police employees.

Chancellor George Osborne has announced that the state retirement age would go up to 68 sometime in the mid-2030s.

The further consideration stage passed following a lengthy debate on 20 amendments put forward by the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Green Party and the TUV.

Sinn Féin amendments aimed at giving the assembly flexibility in relation to any further changes made at Westminster concerning pension age were not voted through.

'Blank cheque'

North Antrim MLA Daithi McKay explained why his party was calling for this.

"It is crucial that we have a devolutionary role in terms of the accountability of the age for pensions and we should not hand that over en masse to Westminster," he said.

"The main issue for me, and for our party, is that you're almost giving a blank cheque to the Westminster government by ensuring that any future increases in the state pension (age) automatically becomes the norm here."

The DUP East Antrim MLA Sammy Wilson disagreed.

"If we deviate from the legislation and from the provisions in the rest of the UK, we will pay for it out of the public purse and out of the block grant," he said.

Judith Cochrane of the Alliance Party said the Sinn Féin amendments would essentially delete the linkage of scheme pension age to state pension age and in doing so, would "move the bill away from its intended outcome".

Ulster Unionist Leslie Cree said he too would be voting against these amendments.

The Green Party leader Steven Agnew was more supportive. He said special considerations needed to be taken into account for certain professions such as prison officers and paramedics.

Shortfall

"We do have to weigh up the costs but we do have to, through devolution, make our own choices in Northern Ireland," he said.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said he had yet to hear any strong argument why particular employees should be treated more generously.

He also raised concerns over cost and said his department would not pay to make up any shortfall if the amendments seeking flexibility were passed.

"HM Treasury will not, or indeed why should they, foot the financial bill for more generous public service pension provision in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK," he said.

Amendments proposed by the TUV leader Jim Allister which sought to address the "inequality" in regard to widows of police officers retaining lifelong benefits were voted through.

Mr Allister explained that under a new scheme, passed in 2009, the widowed spouse or partner of a police officer could remarry and retain their pension.

However, before this was introduced, a police widow who remarried lost their pension.

He said his amendment would "apply the same rights" for all police widows as it "makes no distinction or discrimination".

A joint SDLP and Green Party amendment which called for representation from a recognised trade union on pension boards did not pass.

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