Chesterfield-based environmentalists and Derbyshire Pensioners Action Group have joined forces to raise concerns about the county council-managed Derbyshire Pension Fund’s climate change investment strategy with fossils fuels and the accessibility of the fund’s recent public consultation.
Derbyshire County Council released a seven-week online consultation from December 13 to January 31 but it has been met with criticism from environmental group Transition Chesterfield and its Divest Derbyshire campaigners and from the Derbyshire Pensioners Action Group.
Both claim the public consultation was restrictive with mainly online availability, that questions were inherently biased and closed with only 250-word spaces for responses, and that it included an explanation that the fund still invests in fossil fuels because they still have a part to play in the transition to a greener economy.
Lisa Hopkinson, of Transition Chesterfield, said: “We have repeatedly provided evidence that fossil fuel companies pose a financial risk to the fund as well as being unethical.
“Their preferred strategy of engagement clearly has not changed the behaviour of fossil fuel companies, whose strategies are not aligned with the Paris Agreement.
“The science is clear. The 1.5per cent limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels.
“A report by the IEA shows that oil and gas companies currently account for just one per cent of clean energy investment globally and 60per cent of that comes from just four companies.”
The Derbyshire Pension Fund’s three-yearly consultation on its investment strategy statement, responsible investment framework and climate strategy is open to pension fund members as well as all Derbyshire residents.
Both Divest Derbyshire and the DPAG claimed that the consultation was available online without any postal option indicated and they claim there was no option for people without access to a computer, or who are not computer-literate, to respond and that the website does not include any information about being able to send in responses directly or by post.
They also claimed some of the questions were biased and closed and highlighted one which provided only ‘yes’. ‘no’, or ‘not sure’ options as answers to a question concerning whether the respondent agreed with the fund’s ambition to be net carbon neutral by 2050.
However, because Divest Derbyshire believes the fund should be net carbon neutral by an earlier date it has argued that the question did not allow its belief to be clarified.
Ms Hopkinson added “We have provided plenty of authoritative evidence over the years that the fossil fuels companies are investing a fraction of their investment in renewables, and most of it is going on exploration.
“And that the commitments by all fossil fuel companies falls short of the Paris Agreement. And that the engagement process has failed to make the progress required.”
The campaigners also feel the consultation included three technical documents which contained difficult language and jargon for the respondents.
They also criticised what they believe was a lack of publicity about the consultation as well as difficulties for respondents who may have struggled to navigate their way to find a relevant letter online relating to the consultation which was ‘buried in the documents section’.
Divest Derbyshire and the DPAG added that they felt the timing of the consultation over the busy festive season was ill-thought out too and more time should have been allowed for respondents ro submit their answers and comments.
Sue Owen, of Derbyshire Pensioners Action Group, which is campaigning to stop Derbyshire Pension Fund from investing in fossil fuels, said: “It is very reminiscent of the last consultation undertaken by the Pension Committee in 2020, which was a complete failure – there were about 40 responses out of nearly 100,000 members.
“We would expect Derbyshire County Council and the pension fund to have improved its communications and consultation techniques after such a dismal response.”
The campaigners have requested that all responses, not just those responses to the online questionnaire, are counted in this consultation, that pension fund members are alerted directly to this consultation and all other consultations, and that future consultations should follow best practice in terms of accessibility, neutrality and inclusivity.
DPAG also asked for the consultation exercise to be redrafted, that the questionnaire and FAQs be rewritten and then republished for members with clearer messaging and easily accessible information with a later date for responses.
The Head of Derbyshire Pensions Fund, at Derbyshire County Council, Dawn Kinley stated in a response that letters to pension fund members had been sent by email or online with a clear reference to the consultation which was also advertised on the council’s consultation page with links to relevant documents.
Ms Kinley stated an email was sent to the pension fund’s 340 employees highlighting the consultation and notifying them about the consultation letter.
She also explained there are a lot of complex matters to be considered and the FAQs include a summary of each document, highlight any changes and explanations for technical references and accessibility and clear messaging in the fund’s style guide is followed.
The DPAG was also informed by Ms Kinley that consultation documents and response are available for stakeholders in different formats upon request with a contact email on the fund’s website and the council’s website consultation page.
A helpline phone number was also included in letters to members but clearer sign-posting to the number will be taken into account, according to Ms Kinley’s response.
She also stated that she felt comment boxes did allow for a proper evaluation and the FAQs included factual information and that fund’s position was qualified.
Ms Kinley stated: “The fund will continue to work on improving its engagement with members, including increasing the number of members registered on My Pension Online and working with members via the Member Engagement Forum, to improve the accessibility of the fund’s documents and the fund’s communications.”
Derbyshire County Council also confirmed that more than 60,000 letters were also sent out by post in relation to the consultation.
Campaigners including an Extinction Rebellion Samba band previously took part in a demonstration with a giant ‘oil monster’ and ‘oil barons’ performing an oil-themed Jabberwocky, in Matlock, in March, last year as part of a National Day of Divestment against council pension funds being invested in fossil fuels.
Derbyshire Pensioners Action Group spokesperson Ms Owen has stated that the DPAG wants Derbyshire County Council’s Derbyshire Pension Fund to take money out of fossil fuels which she claims are causing a ‘climate catastrophe’.
She has argued that the DPAG would like to see money invested in local sustainable green investments such as well insulated social housing or local wind and solar energy production.