What happened at the County’s Pension Fund Committe meeting

We have been campaigning, locally and globally, for divestment from fossil fuels over the last 2 years. The effects of this finally became visible at the meeting of Oxfordshire County Council Pension Fund Committee on Friday 5th June 2015. The debate during the meeting hinted that we may be at a turning point in our engagement with the Council, so now is the time to ramp up the pressure.

Following our petition hand-in of over 1200 signatures in February, we pushed for the issue of divestment to be considered by the Pension Fund Committee, and accordingly the agenda for this meeting included a 5 minute address (you can read the text of it here) by Peter Wallis, who is a member of the campaign team, and a subsequent item on “Corporate Governance and Socially Responsible Investment,” based on a paper from the County Council’s Chief Finance Officer, Lorna Baxter.

Peter Wallis outside County Hall

Peter Wallis outside County Hall

Peter Wallis, who works for the County Council and is a Local Government Pension Scheme member, spoke with great presence and conviction. He welcomed the Chief Finance Officer’s assertion that the principal concern of the Committee is for the scheme members’ best interests. He pointed out that these interests include both ensuring the fund can pay members’ pensions when on retirement, and having a secure and resilient world to retire into and pass on to future generations. He argued powerfully that neither of these interests is served by investing in financially risky and environmentally dangerous fossil fuels. He drew the committee’s attention to a recent article in the Telegraph which begins

“The political noose is tightening on the global fossil fuel industry. It is a fair bet that world leaders will agree this year to impose a draconian “tax” on carbon emissions that entirely changes the financial calculus for coal, oil, and gas, and may ultimately devalue much of their asset base to zero.”

Pete’s address was followed by questions from the Councillors, which questioned not the need for moving away from burning fossil fuels, but what the necessary timescale was for change. Cllr Lovatt said he had always believed that the internal combustion engine would go the way of steam and Cllr Langridge, while stressing that we were still dependent now on fossil fuels, asked how quickly we need to change.

The Committee’s next discussion of the principles governing their investment decisions was informed by a report from the Chief Finance Officer. We had responded to this before the meeting. (You can see and overview of the main issues below). The debate went on for more than twice the time allocated on the agenda and raised a huge range of questions, aired some important arguments and dispelled some myths.  Councillors across the political spectrum represented on the committee spoke in favour of strengthened conversations with fund managers on “the part they are playing in this important dialogue” and of the importance of consultation with scheme members and employers on investment policy.

This was the fourth time Fossil Free Oxfordshire had addressed an Oxfordshire County Council body (having previously addressed meetings of the Pension Fund Committee, the Cabinet and Full Council), but the first time councillors and officers got substantially engaged in a meaningful and animated debate. Although there was no immediate commitment to blanket divestment, they do appear to recognise the risks of ill adapted business models and say they are committed to include or exclude investments in light of a comprehensive risk assessment completed in line with Carbon Tracker’s ambitious Blueprint Checklist. There was a strong call from Councillors to engage urgently with the Investment Managers, some of whom have not yet been asked these sorts of questions. For the first time we came away with the sense that, on the whole, the Committee is grasping the magnitude and seriousness of the issue. It’s not a clear-cut win, but we think it’s a significant shift.

Although the change in the tone of the discussion was encouraging, the way these meetings are set up precludes any real dialogue. We’d have preferred an opportunity for a more participative form of engagement. The only input we were allowed was to answer (at the discretion of the Chair) questions posed in response to the address. We could have contributed fruitfully to the discussion had we been given a seat at the table rather than an observer role. We will be proposing ways in which LGPS members can participate in this important debate.

What next? Well about ten days ago we launched an online letter-writing tool (with leaflets available too) for Oxfordshire LGPS members to tell the Pension Fund Committee what THEY think about divestment. Please go to the online tool if you are an LGPS member. At Friday’s meeting, Cllr Lilly, who chairs the Committee, announced that he had had 56 letters so far, from a membership of 44,000. Watch this space!

We have many other ideas for the way forward. Please contact us at fossilfreeoxon@gmail.com if you’d like to support the campaign. We’re always open to new members and can use any offer of support, even if you only have a small amount of time to spare.