The Leaflet Tour Continues!

On the morning of Wednesday January 27th, Pete and Alan and I (Julia) headed off to Witney – before sunrise – so that we were at the offices of West Oxfordshire District Council in time to greet staff arriving for work with our lovely LGPS leaflets. We were very happy with how it went. No one asked us to leave (as we were at the Vale of the White Horse offices) and we had very few bad or disinterested responses from individual members of staff. We felt very welcome, in fact. Several people thanked us for doing this, which was just lovely. In fact the very first man we spoke to not only took a leaflet himself but also another half a dozen for his colleagues.

What we do know, however, is that West Oxfordshire is not quite the bustling, go-getting environment of, say, County Hall in down town Oxford. It was pretty quiet between 8 and 8.30am.  In fact, one of us wondered if there had been swingeing cuts and they had all been sacked. But arrivals picked up after 8.30 and we got just over 50 leaflets into the building before we left. Unfortunately, we really had to leave at 9 to get back to Oxford for work and a date with a dredger. From chatting to a member of the premises staff we discovered that most people come to work between 9 and 9.30am. So if anyone with a flexible work-life schedule fancies another slightly later trip to Witney sometime, it might be worthwhile?

Oxfordshire Pension Fund: Fiddling While the Earth Burns

On the morning of the 24th of September we took our campaign to Oxfordshire County Hall. Accompanied by a fiddler, we met county council employees on their way into work to highlight how those who invest their pension fund are fiddling while the earth burns as climate change takes hold.

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Photo: Zoe Broughton

We were drawing attention to the fact that Oxfordshire County Council has £55,609,000 of public money directly invested in fossil fuels through the Local Government Pension Scheme, a figure that increases to £119,694,000 once indirect investments are taken into account. Using data released by Fossil Free UK we can see that 7.18% of the Oxfordshire Pension Fund is  invested in fossil fuels, greater than the 6.22% national average invested by local authorities.

Oxford City Council was the first UK local authority to make a divestment commitment, and we are calling on Oxfordshire County Council who administer the pension fund to follow suit. Fossil fuels are causing irreversible changes to the climate and they are now proving to be financially dangerous with Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, warning that investors face “huge losses” from the fossil fuel industry .

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Photo: Zoe Broughton

We encourage all members of Oxfordshire Local Government Pension Scheme to write to Councillor Lilly, chair of the pension fund committee, and call on the committee to divest their funds from fossil fuels and pursue more ethical investment opportunities.

Our action was covered in the Oxford Mail and Oxford Times and on Jack FM. Council spokespeople, including Councillor Lilly himself, responded with three misleading assertions that we would like to challenge:

  1. “Oxfordshire Pension Fund has nothing at all to do with Oxfordshire County Council”

First, they appear to distance themselves from responsibility for the fund, claiming – bafflingly – that the pension fund has “nothing at all to do with Oxfordshire County Council” and is “administered by the county council but it is not actually run by the authority.” While it is true that the fund assets are not owned by the County Council, this is a red herring: the fund is administered by a committee made up predominantly of elected members of the county council. We have been fed the same line in the past, and on seeking clarification on the point, we were advised by the leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Ian Hudspeth, that “The Pension fund committee set the general principles of investment for the fund.”  

If it is not a matter for them, then why did the following happen?

  • The Leader of the County Council agreed to receive the 1200 signature-strong petition calling for divestment in February 2015
  • We have twice  been invited to address the Pension Fund Committee on the matter of fossil fuel investments. At the Pension Fund Committee in June 2015, Councillors discussed divestment from fossil fuels at some length.
  • The County Council’s Chief Finance Officer prepared a paper on Corporate Governance and Socially Responsible Investment that considers in some detail the arguments for and against fossil fuel investments. It concludes that “The emphasis should therefore remain on challenging the Fund Managers to ensure that they are properly researching all investments, along the lines suggested in the [Carbon Tracker] Blueprint document, and that they are in a position to justify their decisions on individual investments.”
  1. “The county council can’t impose its own social, environmental or ethical views when making investment decisions.”

While it is true that the County Council cannot invest on ethical grounds only, a Law Commission report states that they can take into account ethical factors.

The CFO’s paper itself states: “The Law Commission has stated though that trustees can make investment decisions on non-financial factors, as long as there is no risk of significant financial detriment.”

  1. “We have a legal duty to invest in the best financial interest of pension fund employers and beneficiaries.”

Our point precisely! We have argued all along that fossil fuel investments are not only bad for the climate, they are risky economically. In asserting that the pension fund has a legal duty to invest in the best interests of the fund’s members, the council’s spokesperson quoted in the Oxford Mail article, Paul Smith, supports the case for divestment: investing in fossil fuels is risky and therefore at odds with that duty.

Many establishment figures are warning that fossil fuels could become the sub-prime assets of the future: The Governor of the Bank of England has warned that the vast majority of reserves are unburnable and has launched a major enquiry into this risk. Similarly, the President and the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, and the UN’s top climate change official have issued warnings of stranded assets. HSBC recently advised its clients against investing in fossil fuel companies on the grounds that they will become “economically unviable.” The real question is why the Pension Fund Committee is not taking more urgent action to protect LGPS members from the looming “carbon bubble.”

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Photo: Zoe Broughton

We reiterate our call that for the good of the planet and the pension fund beneficiaries, the Oxfordshire Local Government Pension Scheme divest from fossil fuels and will continue to campaign for our local authority to take the lead in transitioning away from these damaging and dangerous investments. If you are an Oxfordshire LGPS member, please speak up and  add your voice to the call by writing to Councillor Lilly here.

Oxfordshire LGPS, Fiddling While the Earth Burns – Video

On Thursday 24th September we took our campaign to Oxfordshire County Hall. We alerted the council workers, many of whom are members of the Local Government Pension Scheme, to the fact that their pensions had over £50m directly invested in fossil fuels and explained how the committee was fiddling and stalling whilst they invested in the industry directly responsible for climate change.

Zoe Broughton has created a short video from the action.

How did we prepare for the pension fund committee meeting in June (2015)?

At this meeting, the Oxfordshire Pension Fund Committee received our petition on divestment, signed by 1200 of their electorate. Fossil Free Oxfordshire was busy in the run-up to this important meeting, determined to make the most of the opportunity to influence the discussion and aware that there may be limited opportunities to raise the issues again unless we were proactive with our arguments and demands.

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 this was the first time councillors and officers got substantially engaged in a meaningful and animated debate. Not a win, but it definitely felt like progress.

These are some of the things that happened in the run up to the meeting:

  • LGPS members asked to write to the committee Chair

We began to encourage pension scheme members to email Cllr Lilly, Chair of the Pension Fund Committee using this online tool to let him know they would prefer their pension fund was not invested in risky, dangerous fossil fuel companies (if you are a scheme member, you are invited to use it now 🙂 ). Cllr Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council was one of the first signatories.

  • Constituents asked to write to Councillors on the Pension Fund Committee

A number of people contacted committee members in advance of the meeting, showing that their constituents supported the call for divestment.

  • Trades Unions asked to support divestment

Oxfordshire retired members unanimously passed a motion calling on the council to divest the pension fund from fossil fuels. Oxfordshire Trades Council passed a motion on the eve of the Pension Fund Committee meeting, which effectively recommended divestment.

  • We were invited to address the Committee again

Several of us have now had practice at writing speeches that will have impact and stay within the few minutes allowed by Council Committees (they are very strict on timing). This time Pete, who is an LGPS member and County Council employee, delivered plea for divestment from the heart, which completely engaged the councillors. They were clearly listening!

  • We engaged with the Council’s analysis of the issue

The County Council’s Chief Finance Officer prepared this paper for the committee, to inform their discussion of “Corporate governance and socially responsible investment,” that followed the item on our petition. Agenda papers are published a week before the meetings, so we rushed to respond to it ahead of the meeting, in an email to the CFO and all the committee members – the subject of our next blog.

Now we have to keep the pressure up. We have lots of ideas about how we can do that, but we’re a small team and we could do with some more people to get involved in different ways – big or small. Do get in touch if you could help out.

*** You can read what happened at the meeting here.

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.

Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet Receive Petition from Fossil Free Oxfordshire Campaign

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Al Chisholm, of the Fossil Free Oxfordshire campaign, presenting Ian Hudspeth, leader of the County Council, with the petition

The Fossil Free Oxfordshire campaign presented a petition of over 1200 signatures to the Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet, at their meeting on Tuesday February 24th at 2pm.

The petition calls on the Council to:
​1. Immediately freeze any new investments in fossil fuels;
2. Within 5 years, divest from all direct ownership, and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds.

Fossil Free Oxfordshire is part of a global movement highlighting the urgent need to stop investing in companies that continue to exploit and explore for new fossil fuel reserves which the planet cannot afford to burn.

Proven fossil fuel reserves contain four times the world’s remaining ‘carbon budget’ – that is the amount of carbon that can ever be released into the atmosphere, if the world is to remain within safe climate limits. This means the majority of reserves on which fossil fuel company assets depend can never be burned and will become “stranded assets”.

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Alan addressing the cabinet

Prof Alan Allport spoke about the petition at the Cabinet meeting. He quoted Professor Lord Stern and his colleagues: “The scale of this carbon budget deficit poses a major risk to investors. They need to understand that 60 – 80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of listed firms are unburnable.” Prof Allport appealed to the Cabinet: “Please don’t sleepwalk into this danger”.

Al Chisholm of Fossil Free Oxfordshire said “Oxford City Council has taken a strong lead by including fossil fuel companies amongst the exclusions in its ethical investment policy. Now we want Oxfordshire County Council to move nearly £50 million away from fossil fuel companies and put it into investments that are less financially risky and better for the planet”.

On February 14th student, county and church campaigners in Oxford joined hundreds of events in 48 countries for Global Divestment Day to put pressure on organisations to divest from oil, coal and gas industries and reinvest in clean technology.

The Fossil Free campaign says there is an ethical case for divestment, and over the last two years, over 180 universities, faith groups and pension funds worldwide, representing over £30 billion in assets, have committed to divest. The fossil fuel divestment movement is the fastest growing divestment campaign in history with over 500 active divestment campaigns underway at universities, cities, churches, banks, and other institutions.

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Petition hand in

In 2014, Oxford City Council and Oxford Diocese made history as the first UK institutions of their kinds to make divestment commitments. The initiative is part of the Fossil Free campaign.

Danielle Paffard, UK divestment campaigner at 350.org, said: “The UK divestment movement is already making a huge impact and Oxford is leading the way. In just two years, this campaign has grown from a few universities to hundreds of institutions around the world.