7 December 2020
James Cleverly responds to debate on Kenyan Civil Service Pensions

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a debate on the non-payment of pensions to former civil servants working for the Government of Kenya.


The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I too would like to express my gratitude to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this debate. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done on advocating for pensioners as chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. I would also like to thank the other hon. Members who have raised individual cases from a number of parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Minister for Africa is frustrated that he is missing this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I will try to answer as many of the questions raised as possible, but there may well be details to which I am not able to respond in this debate; I hope that Members will forgive me if that is the case. I will try to provide more complete responses later if there are gaps.

The individual constituents referred to today were previously dedicated civil servants working for the Government of Kenya. They have not received their pension payments—in some instances, for over 18 months. Prior to that, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. and right hon. Members, they have not had a pensions uprating since 1992. There have been previous occasions where pensions payments have been withheld, but not for this duration. Of course, a prolonged period of withheld payments has real-world consequences for the day-to-day lives of the people involved, and there is a risk that this will push individuals into a position where they face the unacceptable choice about which basic essentials they should forgo. The people we are speaking about have worked often lengthy and distinguished careers in public service, with the promise that they would receive their pension benefits. I therefore join the House in voicing our frustration at the harsh and unfair reality with which many of these individuals have been forced to grapple.

In 1963, the Government of Kenya inherited both the assets and liabilities of the pre-independence era, including the payment and administration of public service employees’ pensions. In 1970, it became clear that it was becoming an increasing burden on Kenya, and—as an aid initiative and in recognition of our history with Kenya—Her Majesty’s Government announced that they would assume responsibility for the award, control, administration and payment of pension benefits of certain former public servants and their beneficiaries. As the right hon. Member for East Ham mentioned, these were people employed on expatriate terms—that is, those who had paid leave passage outside the country during their employment and who were not citizens of Kenya on 1 April 1971 or on their date of retirement, if that were later.

The pension of anyone who did not meet these criteria remained, and still remains, the responsibility of the Government of Kenya. It is this second group that we are discussing today. In response to the right hon. Member’s question, our estimate is that there are 229 retired civil servants who fall into this category. Some of these pensioners, whose payments are the sole responsibility of the Government of Kenya, now reside in the United Kingdom, and are our constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members.

The Government of Kenya appointed Crown Agents Bank as the global paying agent for their pensions liabilities, and it is Crown Agents Bank that is entrusted to make payments to those owed pensions by the Government of Kenya who are based overseas. However, in April 2019, the Government of Kenya ceased releasing funds to Crown Agents Bank, which was therefore unable to make the pension payments to the relevant former officers of the Kenyan civil service. We understand that there are a total of 286, with 229 residing in the United Kingdom.

The Government of Kenya have, as yet, not provided any explanation for the suspension of the payments. Her Majesty’s Government, specifically the former Minister for Africa, were first made aware of this suspension of payments at the end of May 2019 by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who had received letters from affected constituents. From the speeches and interventions this evening, it is clear that other right hon. and hon. Members were approached by constituents in similar circumstances.

When it became clear that this was not an isolated incident, and indeed not a short-lived incident, a number of months later Her Majesty’s Government immediately got in contact with the Government of Kenya. We have regularly made both official and ministerial representations to the Government of Kenya, including on a number of occasions throughout 2019—I am making sure that I do not inadvertently pre-empt part of my own speech—and up to 3 December 2020, when the Minister for Africa raised this issue. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London lobbied the Kenyan high commissioner and our high commission in Nairobi liaised with the pensions department of the Kenyan National Treasury, as well as raising the issue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In all those exchanges, we asked for an explanation as to why payments were stopped, and called on the Government of Kenya to resume payments and backdate them as a matter of urgency.

Mr Dhesi 

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. During all those exchanges with the Government of Kenya, and given that this is a moral and ethical issue, did our Government Ministers explain to the Kenyan Government that this will become a matter of great shame for them? Even given the small amounts and the small number of individuals involved, it will still be a historical blot of non-compliance and non-payment to hardworking individuals who have served Kenya so tirelessly throughout their lives.

James Cleverly 

I have not been privy to the details of the conversations, but I think it would be unimaginable for the Kenyan Government not to realise that when there is interest from Members of the UK Parliament, it will become a high-profile issue and it will have reputational implications for them.

The Government of Kenya, unfortunately, have never proactively raised this issue with us. Our high commissioner in Nairobi raised the issue with Principal Secretary Kamau from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 1 December, sharing with them the copies of the note verbale we had previously submitted on the subject. My colleague the Minister for Africa also raised it with Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury and Planning Yatani on Thursday 3 December and pushed again for pension payments to be resumed and backdated.

We have been in regular contact with Crown Agents Bank and understand that in recent months it has made progress with the pensions department of the Kenyan National Treasury. Crown Agents Bank provided additional information at the request of Kenyan authorities but as yet the funds needed for payments to resume have still not been released.

Seema Malhotra 

I thank the Minister for the detailed response he is giving. Do the Government have any sort of taskforce that is dedicated to trying to get a resolution on this issue and to pursuing that doggedly? Will they keep those in the UK who are retired and affected up to date? I make the point again about the distress and strain for them, their children and their wider families, and the concern about whether, if people have passed away, their entitlements will still go to their relatives, because their families should have received them.

James Cleverly 

My understanding is that we do not have a specific taskforce, but we do raise this issue at both high commissioner and ministerial level. My hon. Friend the Minister for Africa will be travelling to the region and raising this issue again with his Kenyan counterparts when he has the opportunity to do so. The matter is being dealt with at both senior official and ministerial level. I hope that shows the House that the Government take this issue very seriously indeed.

We understand that the Kenyan Treasury is now taking the matter forward with Crown Agents Bank. Quite frankly, progress has not been made anywhere near as fast as we would have hoped. In his contacts with the Kenyan Government my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa is urging swift resolution to this matter to ensure that payments to all individuals affected resume and that the outstanding sums are made good. He will have noted this evening’s debate, and I hope that the Government of Kenya will have done so too and ultimately will do the right thing for the public servants who worked with them in the past.