Pensions: Occupational Pensions — Question for Short Debate
7:57 pm

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Lord Shutt of Greetland (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, before the debate is introduced, I hope I may make the normal point that it is a timed debate. Apart from the mover and the responder, other noble Lords are limited to six minutes. The monitor is dark now but when it shows six, the six minutes are up.

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Lord McFall of Alcluith (Labour)

My Lords, I am delighted to introduce this debate on occupational pensions. Last year I was asked by the National Association of Pension Funds to set up a working party looking at occupational pensions. When the report was published, I mentioned that a golden sunset of pensions was giving way to a bleak dawn. Many millions of people will face poverty in retirement-some absolute poverty. That is the inauspicious background to this debate. People are saving less and less and there is less and less trust in the pensions system. In fact, the NAPF confidence index is presently at minus six-the lowest it has ever been since its inception.

I want to look at the issue of risk. The flight from defined benefit to defined contribution schemes means that all the risk is on the saver. In effect, the saver is often left to navigate through a pensions minefield which would puzzle the brain of Albert Einstein. The consumer is short-changed and the voice of that consumer is missing. We need to ensure that that voice and that presence is centre stage in pension provision. In the flight from defined benefits to defined contributions, it strikes me that it is not just the risk which has shifted from the employer to the employee but that the onus is on the employee-the individual-to make critical decisions about their pension which they are ill equipped to do. It is a fiendishly complex matter and they need help and reassurance from scheme trustees who promote good governance. We need good, strong, independent governance. That is central to good member outcomes. We can achieve that good governance only if we have an environment which is conducive to achieving that, and if we have proper structures. We need schemes which are of a sufficient size to enable them to reap the benefits of scale and produce low charges to ensure that we get good governance and high-quality communication.

At present, there are 54,000 separate DC schemes operated by tiny employers in this country. With the average worker now changing job 11 times, we see the proliferation of these tiny pension pots with no portability. These have two critical disadvantages. First, they lack the scale efficiencies of larger ones and have inadequate governance, and, secondly, they tend to deliver worse outcomes at higher costs. There are no compensating benefits whatever.

The Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, has put out a challenge on red tape, as he calls it. That is a welcome opportunity to reinvigorate the pensions landscape, not just by eliminating regulation but by ensuring that we have better and more appropriate regulation. The environment for employers should be one whereby they offer decent workplace pensions with a minimum fuss, while ensuring that members' benefits are protected. A key area for government consideration is over the risk-sharing between employer and employee. The Government need to ensure that employers who want to assume some risk are incentivised to do so. The questions that need consideration are: how should the Government support and reinvigorate multiemployer wide schemes? In what ways can they fiscally encourage employers and reward them for taking on some of the risks?

The third aspect is auto-enrolment and NEST. This is welcome because it has the potential to encourage between 5 million and 9 million people to save for retirement in addition to those who have not saved previously-largely those on a low income. First, the Government have to look at the state offering and establish a firm foundation for saving. It will not be worth while for people to save if that firm foundation is not in place. Secondly, I have a simple message for the Government: remove the shackles from NEST. Take the messages that its chief executive Tim Jones and chairman Lawrence Churchill gave to the DWP Select Committee a few months ago. The cap and transfer-in rule are preventing the best outcome for institutional savers and government. The rule stops consolidation of existing pension provision for employers into NEST, and the cap ensures that employers have to run more than one scheme-one for the lower paid and another for higher earners-if they choose NEST.

Lawrence Churchill's remarks to the committee were telling. He said that 40 per cent of the lower paid are engaged by large employers, so already 40 per cent of those whom he called "our market" will not use NEST because of the restrictions. By impeding the volume of business for longer, the Government's loan will take longer to be repaid. It is therefore wise for the Government to remove that contribution cap. By doing so, NEST would need 100 million less in taxpayers' money. It should be remembered that the shackles were imposed because of a 2005 political settlement. Removing the restrictions would ensure efficient organisation, and auto-enrolment would incentivise industry to lower costs and charges.

On the issue of costs and charges, disclosure is inconsistent among schemes and providers. In fact, what is consistent is the opacity of disclosure. We need transparency on the cash impact on pension pots. I welcome the code of conduct that NAPF has established as a result of my committee's proposals. Let us keep in mind that a 2 per cent fee over the lifetime of a pension, which is not out of line, swallows up 50 per cent of an individual's pension pot. My message to the Government is: do not wait and see the impact on high charges; use regulatory powers to apply stakeholder charge-capped schemes that are eligible for auto-enrolment.

The UK has the largest annuities market globally-450,000 were purchased in 2009 with a total value of 11 billion, and that will increase in the years ahead. Research since 1957 indicates that for each year of life expectancy, annuity rates have fallen by 0.56 percentage points. What does that translate into? An individual with a 100,000 pension pot in 1957 could have secured a pension of 11,000. In 2009, a similar pot could have secured a pension of 6,200 and, in 2010, 5,200. As the Minister knows, the rates offered can also vary by more than 25 per cent for a similar individual and annuity type. Shopping around should therefore be the default position, and there is a long way to go in that area. The reason that it should be the default position is that it would allow more flexibility for the changing spending patterns in old age.

The issue of Europe has been brought to me through lobbying. Lobbying by companies is very relevant because of the negotiations on Solvency II. The Government have to be vigilant here because if we do not get the right outcome, we will see the death of defined benefit schemes in the United Kingdom.

Lastly, on stability, the pensions cycle is between 40 and 50 years. The political cycle is between four and five years. We are out of sync. Since 1996, there have been more than 800 changes to pensions legislation and regulation-the equivalent of one change per week. I say to the Minister that that does not add stability. What we need to do is think about taking the politics out of pensions. A standing advisory body on, say, longevity and state pension ages, would be a good start, but we need a pension policy that is stable, for the long term and based on political consensus. I therefore suggested in our report, and suggest again to the Minister, that an independent standing commission on pensions should be established to ensure that the interests of the saver are centre-stage for the long term. If we work together in harmony on these proposals, perhaps we can assist in averting a bleak dawn for pensioners in the future.

8:06 pm
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Lord Freeman (Conservative)

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McFall, on securing this debate on a very important subject. I am bound to say that I agree with a great deal of what he has said, not only in the past but to your Lordships tonight. There is a wealth of experience from those who are to contribute to this debate. I see in his place the author of a very important report on the pensions industry, and we look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Hutton.

My contribution comes from my experience as chairman of a very large pension fund, as referred to in the register. Although I speak for myself and not for my fellow trustees, my experience obviously comes from my business background and from looking at the impact of the problems of our pension fund, and indeed of other pension funds in the private sector, on the well-being of British industry.

The position is serious. The latest estimate of the actuarial deficit of British pension funds is of the order of 750 billion. It has got a lot worse in the past three to four months. For funds with an actuarial valuation date of 31 December, the position is that the stock market has fallen since the middle of the year, and due to quantitative easing, the yields on gilts and more generally have increased the liabilities because the discounting factor is much less than it would have been in the past. It is a very serious position for British industry.

As the noble Lord, Lord McFall, said, defined benefit schemes have been closed at an increasing rate. In the FTSE 100, not a single defined benefit scheme is open to future members-they are closed to new members. However, the deficits remain. The schemes may not be taking on new members but the historical legacy of the pension funds and the benefits-very generous benefits, in certain circumstances-have contributed to the serious deficits. I will quote only one example-not a FTSE 100 company. I believe that the Royal Mail is still in a 25-year recovery period to pay off the existing deficit. The introduction of mandatory indexing of the pensions of those still left in defined benefit schemes is understandable, but I should point out, as the Minister well knows, that indexing is capped in only one country-in Holland. That, of course, assists the viability of an existing pension fund.

From my personal experience I would like to congratulate the diligence, efficiency and helpfulness of the regulator, who has to look after the Pension Protection Fund. He is looking over his shoulder to make sure that not too many burdens are placed on that fund. However, the regulator's willingness to consider longer recovery periods, and his understanding of the current problems of some pension funds, is to be applauded.

I have two concerns and will put two points to the Minister. If he does not have time to answer them in his winding-up speech, perhaps he will be kind enough to write to me. First, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord McFall, touched on: we need to increase the awareness of employees of the likely shortfall of proper provision in retirement. We need an awareness campaign, which I think only the Government, the Department for Work and Pensions, can lead. Clearly the regulator cannot do it alone. We need to appreciate that if you have a personal pension plan in addition to your defined benefit or defined contribution scheme, that may not provide enough in later life. For example, if in addition to your scheme, you save 100,000 over a lifetime of working, when it comes to drawing a pension, that may mean only 3,000 per annum. That gives you an example of what meagre addition might be entailed. We need an awareness campaign and, perhaps, even to relax the draw-down provisions in legislation to permit people to draw more money.

Finally-this is a rather radical proposal-we need to revisit trustee governance. That is an immensely complicated subject: the provision of pension funds and the advice that is given. In my experience, even with the training now provided in many pension funds for their trustees, it is becoming too complicated and we may need a new model, which is to permit trusts to wholly contract out advice. I look forward to hearing the contributions of more experienced Members than I around your Lordships' House.

8:12 pm
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Lord Hutton of Furness (Labour)

My Lords, probably for as long as most of us in this House can remember, successive Governments in the United Kingdom have been wrestling with three unpalatable facts about occupational pensions. First, fewer and fewer people are saving for their retirement. When they are saving, they are almost certainly not saving enough to cover the extra years for which we are living. For perfectly good and understandable reasons, the previous Labour Government, of whom I was proud to be a member, introduced a series of reforms to the state basic pension which have served to make the system much more complicated and reliant on means-tested benefits. The consequence is that we might have done some damage to the principle of personal responsibility for saving.

So we have three very difficult problems to wrestle with. I endorse all the comments and concerns of my noble friend Lord McFall and many of those introduced to our debate by the noble Lord, Lord Freeman. If those are the three problems that we are wrestling with, I am glad to say that successive Governments have found within themselves the ability to reach a reasonable consensus about how we deal with them. The noble Lord, Lord Turner, did the country a huge favour in 2005 with his report which the previous Government took forward and the current Government are now taking forward in a sensible fashion.

My advice to the Minister is not to tinker with the framework. That has been one of the enduring problems with pension law and pension law reform; we have never allowed the dust to settle on any of the reforms that we have introduced. That has created the problem that both noble Lords have referred to: the lack of confidence and trust in our pensions saving system.

It is too early to judge whether these reforms are likely to be as successful as we all in this House and outside want them to be. We are heading for a very difficult place. It cannot be right that the price that our society pays for increasing longevity-rising life expectancy, which is a great prize in our community-is increasing levels of intolerable poverty among that rapidly growing age group. We have it in our grasp, with the reforms that the noble Lord, Lord Turner, outlined a few years ago, to prevent that outcome, but we have to guard against the law of unintended consequences. It was perfectly right to set the contribution levels for NEST as they were. It is a very big change for many employers, particularly smaller employers, now to have to make pension contributions, and we must guard against the consequences in our labour market of going too far and too fast. I think that we all understand that. We must be mindful that NEST, although a step in the right direction, could have negative consequences for existing saving products, particularly in the defined contribution sector.

There is a way out of this conundrum. Living longer does not have to mean the end of the world as we know it. On occupational pensions, I think that we have a reasonable direction of travel. I support what Ministers are trying to do with the state pension, which is to make it more generous and more universally available to get us out of this very difficult space we are in with the current means-tested rules around pension credit. If we can find a way to ensure that there is a decent platform on which people can save without worrying about whether it is in their interests or not to save-whether any of those extra savings will be clawed back through lost pension credit and so on-we will have done the country a big favour. We will have reinforced the principle of personal responsibility for saving, with which we must not interfere or blur. If we do that, we will leave future generations with bills that I very much doubt that they will be able to pay.

Both noble Lords have basically raised all the points that I wanted to raise. That will not stop me from raising them in my own terms. We face two fundamental problems right now, given that, sadly, defined benefit schemes in the private sector are now clearly on the way out and are not coming back. That is a consequence of a number of factors of which we in this place and elsewhere will be very well aware. It means that defined contribution schemes will have to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to breaking through into the sunnier uplands where more people are saving more for their retirement, allowing those savings to stretch for the extra years for which we know that people are living. We have to find a way through that.

The Pensions Regulator issued an important consultation document last year about reform of regulation for DC schemes. Like other noble Lords, I hope, I look forward to the outcome of the consultation. The regulator has identified many of the important issues to do with improvements in governance and oversight in DC schemes, which will not go away. We have to find a better way through to ensure that DC schemes produce better results for those who are saving in them than they are currently. I am not saying that regulation is the only way through; we must be mindful of the consequences of overregulation, but the Pensions Regulator has identified issues which, I hope, will result in more concrete proposals.

The second issue, which is of much greater concern, is what Europe is planning to do on defined benefit schemes. It is impossible to exaggerate-although we all exaggerate as a profession, as politicians-the danger that lurks behind the proposals from the European Commission. They would mean the end of defined benefit in the private sector. I want defined benefit schemes to continue in the public sector, and I believe that there is a way to do that, provided that reforms are made, but we should not sit back and welcome the demise of DB in the private sector, because that is what will happen if we move to Basel III-type insolvency regulatory frameworks for DB. That is the wrong regulatory tool. I understand why the European Commission wants to guard against the dangers and hazards, but good intentions do not always make good regulation. The Government are right to resist those proposals very strongly, because they would be a step backwards.

8:18 pm
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Lord Stoneham of Droxford (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I am pleased to take part in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord McFall, whose work on the Workplace Retirement Income Commission was timely. I thank him for his immensely valuable input to this debate. I agree with pretty much everything that has been said by the previous speakers. That underlines that real progress on pensions comes when there is genuine cross-party co-operation. The work of the Pensions Commission and actions initiated by the previous Labour Government and now taken on by the coalition, are the ones that will have lasting value.

I hope that this generation, benefiting from the last of the direct benefit pensions, will help prepare the next generation for the pension problems that they will have. Clearly, over the next five years we will have to concentrate on the introduction of auto-enrolment and NEST to attract the 6 million to 8 million people whom we want to bring into pension coverage. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, who said that stability is now absolutely essential. The one opportunity that this big change will give is that it will raise the profile of pensions and the need for us to make the case for people to save for them. It is important that we concentrate on doing this well, but there remain a number of ongoing problems that we need to look at for the future.

The pensions system remains incredibly complex with the two-tier state pension and all the constraints and conditions of auto-enrolment-the phasing in and the exclusions. Initially these will not help; they will confuse people, and we are going to have to work very hard to explain them. I hope that the Government will progress with their proposal for a single higher-rate basic pension, not least because 9 million to 10 million people will miss out on auto-enrolment. There has to be a greater understanding of the need for people to provide more for their retirement. We must plan ahead for the review of auto-enrolment in order to simplify it once it has settled in-removing the caps, looking at the thresholds and easing the transfers into NEST.

One fundamental problem with the system that we are going into is that the contributions are simply too low to provide adequate pensions for people entering retirement. We will soon have to examine ways of gradually raising, through phased increases, an auto-escalation of the contribution rates. We cannot do this initially but it will be important for the future.

Another problem is that we are introducing this at a very bad time. The impact of the recession, all the changes associated with student loans and the ability to raise the deposit for a house will all delay saving for retirement and make it much more difficult for people to prepare for their retirement. As a result, we are going to require far greater experimentation and flexibility in relation to savings vehicles to encourage flexible saving to support pension provision.

Governance and risk in occupational pensions is one area that we will need to look at very carefully. We can argue about what has caused the death of the defined pension scheme but the consequence is that it has weakened, and will continue to weaken, employer interest in pension provision. It is already having the effect of weakening contributions. I suspect that it is going to weaken interest in the governance of defined contribution schemes, and there is going to be less joint employer/employee interest in these schemes. Employers will be outsourcing it, if they can.

It will be very important for the Government to do everything they can to encourage experimentation with pension schemes. The end of the defined benefit scheme has meant that we have become very polarised: now, the employer is not prepared to take any risk and has handed it all to the employee. In some respects, that polarisation has gone too far. We need to move back to a middle way of experimentation where there is a sharing of risk in pensions.

The role of employers remains terribly important in pensions. Certainly, they have to provide a countervailing power if we want to get competitive rates for annuities, if we want to get the general level of charges down and if we want to take advantage of the benefits of scale in pensions. The role and interest of employers in the management of pensions is absolutely essential. We must not downgrade the importance of the employer.

Finally, there is the outstanding issue of tax incentives. I am sure that there will be an ongoing debate about reducing the inequities of the current tax incentives, which see the majority of the 28 billion of tax relief going largely to higher earners. There is an inequity here which certainly Liberal Democrats have been committed to ending. Some of this money could be better used in attracting more lower earners to the idea of starting the habit of saving for retirement, as well as paying for the higher state pension.

8:24 pm
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Baroness Drake (Labour)

My Lords, my first involvement with NEST is a matter of record. I thank my noble friend Lord McFall for securing this debate and I give recognition to his work on pensions.

Active membership of workplace pension schemes is now at its lowest level since the 1950s. Although I am relieved that the revised timetable for auto-enrolment has been published, I desperately hope that there will be no further delay. In fact, I plead with the Government that there should be no further delay.

For workers to persist in saving for their pension, they have to have trust and confidence. Auto-enrolment will mean that millions of workers begin saving through the capital markets, and the fiduciary duties and behaviour of those managing their assets are going to be of great importance. Trustees have a duty to act in the best and sole interests of the beneficiaries, but the auto-enrolled world coincides with an increasing move to contract-based provision, where fiduciary duty, managing conflicts of interest and governance standards are more ambiguous. To quote the Secretary of State, Vince Cable, in the foreword to A Long-Term Focus for Corporate Britain, returns can be,

"captured by a small number of intermediaries at the expense of the many who provide the capital".'

A powerful, much needed benefit of establishing NEST as a not-for-profit trust is that it has already started to drive up standards in the industry. Otto Thoresen, the director-general of the ABI, recently acknowledged at the Work and Pensions Select Committee the role of NEST in driving a higher standard of behaviour in the market. Downward pressure on charges and upward pressure on standards of governance-these are the early impacts that NEST is having.

No one who has seen NEST's approach to governance or investment strategy can doubt the absolute focus on delivering a product for ordinary people. It has transformed thinking around the design of default funds. However, NEST's influence on the market has to be strong and sustained over a long time. The product restrictions on NEST, the transfer ban and the charges cap must not be allowed to undermine that influence as the 2012 pensions market, with extensive contract provision, starts to take shape.

The potential cost-efficiency of NEST should not be inhibited. As these restrictions play out in practice, we are now finding that they add complexity to the NEST product rather than simplicity to the employer experience. They may force employers to make multiple-tier provision or sign up for a scheme that does not offer some workers best value.

The transfer restriction also prevents NEST acting as an aggregator of pension pots. With automatic enrolment and job churn, there will be millions of small pots in the system which will be vulnerable to high charges and neglect if they are not steered into a safer harbour.

The Government have acknowledged that the case for reform is clear. That reform must include a role for NEST, which must be fit for purpose in protecting the pension pots of ordinary people.

The importance of NEST in driving up standards in the pension industry should be neither underestimated nor undermined. On the eve of auto-enrolment, we see emerging issues, such as providers selling short-service refunds as a propositional benefit to employers, with the consequential loss of up to two years' pension saving for the worker. There is also the establishment of multi-employer "master trust" schemes by providers with senior executives in trustee roles. How do they manage conflicts of interest? Will such trustees be able to sack underperforming fund managers if they sit within the same corporate entity?

The Secretary of State has reserved powers to set charge caps and I hope that he will monitor closely the emerging evidence. Low charges are essential to the public credibility of automatic enrolment. I also hope that the Government take the opportunity of the Financial Services Bill to strengthen the requirement on regulated bodies to have a duty of care and to act responsibly in the interests of the consumer.

There is increasing recognition of the importance of the alignment of interests between pension scheme governance and the member. NEST has this alignment at the core of its governance. Indeed, it was heartening to see Otto Thoresen at the Work and Pensions Select Committee arguing forcefully that the industry has really got it in terms of the need to make pensions work for the saver. It was equally heartening to hear him accept that some would be cynical of this claim, based on the industry's past behaviour in this area.

I urge the Government unequivocally to confirm that they accept that a successful and thriving NEST has an essential role to play in driving up standards in the industry, in pension provision and in the interests of all those workers who will be auto-enrolled in saving for their pensions. I urge them to take such steps as are necessary to ensure that the role that NEST will perform in raising the standards in the market place is maintained, including removing restrictions to allow it to continue to do that.

8:30 pm
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Lord Myners (Labour)

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord McFall of Alcluith on securing this opportunity for the House to revisit this important area of workplace occupational pension schemes. I declare an interest as a partner in an investment management firm and also as chairman of the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, the predecessor to NEST.

I am a member of a defined benefit pension scheme. My wife, my children and I draw security from the fact that we have an assured income which will track inflation. My father was a fisherman and then a small shopkeeper. He had no workplace pension; he worked at sea. My teenage children will not have a defined benefit pension scheme. This is a single generational phenomenon. Perhaps it cost too much; perhaps it was not valued sufficiently by those who were members of the schemes in the early stages of their lives; and perhaps we in Parliament put too much pressure on this beast and burdened it with all manner of additional requirements. We sought to de-risk it and we sought to provide additional protections. We have destroyed something which I think we all know was a rather good development and whatever succeeds it will not be as good. I fear that that is an irreversible decision.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord McFall on his work on the Workplace Retirement Income Commission. That work focused in particular on some of the problems that arise with the successor arrangement, the defined contribution scheme. Contribution rates are simply too low to deliver the sort of benefits that people believe they will need and expect on retirement. There is a huge mismatch here which the Government constantly need to remind people about in order to encourage higher rates of contribution. Costs are also far too high. Costs are the one manageable element here. If the contribution is fixed and investment returns are outwith the control of the subscriber or the arranger of the plan, then costs is the one area where you can secure some improvement in the benefit that is acquired through contributions.

My noble friend Lord McFall also highlighted the absence of competition in the annuity market. I referred to this in a report that I produced for the Treasury in 2001. This continues to be a very serious problem, particularly for people with only modest amounts to acquire annuities. I would like to suggest to the Minister that the Debt Management Office seriously considers offering annuities. It is another form of funding. It has different features from lending, but essentially a capital sum accrues to Government and a rate of return is paid to the subscriber of that capital. Therefore, it is not unlike a gilt-edged security. The Government have no concerns about operating in the fixed-income issuance market, so why should they not also be funding themselves through annuities? At least they could examine that as a force for change and better value from the private sector.

I believe that NEST is being unreasonably hindered by its inability to act as an aggregator for small funds. That is something that the Government can do. Quite frankly, the private sector is not very interested in aggregation of small balances, so there is no obvious market for that. It is very much a seller's market in terms of pricing. As my noble friend Lady Drake has already reminded us, NEST has clearly played a very important role in improving the governance of pension schemes and improving the pricing of the pensions product. I pay great tribute here to Tim Jones, the chief executive of NEST, and his leadership. I hope that the Government will see NEST as something that they should champion and promote as a really effective force in this area, as it is important to so many people's lives.

My final observation relates to occupational pension schemes as owners of companies. There has been a complete failure of institutional ownership, which lies at the heart of so many of the problems that we have in the private sector, including the hot potato of bonuses, with which I see the coalition Government struggling, and which reminds me of my own days in trying to resolve that issue. There has been a dilution of ownership and a dilution of a sense of responsibility on the part of investors. NEST is seeking to correct that, but the Minister, as a former investment banker, must be very well informed on these issues. In the past, organisations such as the National Association of Pension Funds with Mr David Paterson and the Association of British Insurers with Mr Peter Montagnon have done sterling work in governance and stewardship, but their effectiveness is being diminished by the fact that the pension schemes now represent a much smaller part of the ownership of UK companies. There is a major lacuna there in the economy.

I was disappointed that the Secretary of State for Business's Statement recently on bonuses and pay did not say a great deal about making shareholders more effective in the performance of their duties as owners. I hope that the Kay review, which is due to publish an interim report in the next few days, will, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, assured us yesterday, address the issue of shareowners as responsible owners, including putting them at the fore in an active way in choosing boards of directors and sitting on nominations committees.

8:37 pm
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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord McFall for initiating the debate and especially for his role in chairing the Workplace Retirement Income Commission. In six minutes it is impossible to do justice to its recommendations or the subject of our debate. This is an important piece of work which builds on the earlier deliberations of the Pensions Commission, although the noble Lord is right to highlight the change in circumstances in the few years since the commission reported.

Clearly, the economic environment has changed for the worst-a bleak dawn, as my noble friend called it-where real incomes have fallen, confidence in long-term savings is low and real interest rates are negative. At the same time, people continue to live longer. There is both an imperative to save and an expectation that consumers will do their bit to sustain GDP. Low interest rates have pushed up the value of liabilities of DB schemes, making funding more difficult with greater risks on employers. The noble Lord, Lord Freeman, spoke on that. For the DC environment, low interest rates have meant lower annuity rates and slower build up of capital, with the risks falling on individual savers. So it is little wonder that we have seen the number of employees in private sector workplace schemes continuing to decline, with most private sector DB schemes closed to new members and many to existing members. That is before taking account of the threats from the EU, to which my noble friend Lord Hutton referred.

The need to sustain and reinvigorate pensions is clear and the proposition to do this via occupational schemes is to be supported but we would be cautious about how employers should be engaging with employees on pensions and other savings, as this was certainly a bone of contention when auto-enrolment was planned with a distinction between giving advice and providing information. As the noble Lord's commission identified, although not a panacea, the recommendations of the Pensions Commission provided the foundation for reinvigorating occupational pensions. The components are well known, if complex, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said: a more generous state pension, flat-rating of S2P and the introduction of auto-enrolment. However, as we heard, things have moved on and we now have the coalition Government's proposals for a simpler, single-tier pension to consolidate the two components of the state pension and resources from pension credit. A higher state entitlement and the squeezing out of at least some means testing will clearly provide a platform to encourage further saving, but the proposition is not without its technical challenges. Perhaps the Minister will give us an update on the current plans. What work streams are under way to achieve this and what is the planned phasing of the introduction?

The Government are to be congratulated on sticking with auto-enrolment, although we express our disappointment at the deferred start date for smaller companies and at the fact that it will not be until 2018 that the full employer rate of 3 per cent comes into effect. A number of noble Lords identified that the 8 per cent would have to increase over time. Because the Government are raising the earnings figure, now heading north of 8,000, yet more people will miss out.

Like my noble friend Lady Drake, I urge the Minister to confirm that there will be no further delay in the implementation of auto-enrolment. It has the potential to change the occupational pension landscape, although, as my noble friend Lord Hutton said, it is too early to judge. This is linked to the success of NEST, which has the clear remit of delivering a national scheme with low charges. It has been constrained in its construct as part of the consensus that underpins the Pensions Commission's reforms. The removal in due course of the prohibition on transfers in, and of limits to annual contributions, argued for by my noble friends Lord Myners, Lord McFall and Lady Drake, will certainly be right.

A range of other technical issues would help encourage pension savings. New rules facilitating the cashing in of small pension pots-which would give special help to women-tackling short-service refunds, and changing the rules on enhanced transfer values, will all help. We will support the Government as they tackle these measures. We were promised a bonfire of regulations-from the trivial to the huge-by the Pensions Minister. Perhaps the Minister will give us a clue to what is included in the "huge" category, and how this will help to invigorate pension saving.

There is a lot in place or coming on stream that can make a difference, but we agree with my noble friend that there is much that the industry also must do to address fee levels and structures, and secure greater transparency and a more flexible annuity market. The Minister was given novel suggestion by my noble friend Lord Myners. All the measures are vital, particularly if DC schemes are to take the strain of a challenged DB regime. They are also vital if reputations are to be enhanced and confidence generated. The Workplace Retirement Income Commission stressed the need to develop products for DC schemes that mitigated the risk for individual members. This raises issues of collective DC, hybrid schemes and potentially many more, including the consolidation of a range of smaller schemes. Of course, it depends on whether the risk to be shared is the investment risk or the longevity risk. The development of such products and the complexity that they might bring sharpen the need to address the governance of DC schemes.

In conclusion, I congratulate my noble friend Lord McFall again on the work of his commission and on stimulating the debate tonight. As the report says, pension policy needs to be considered in a long-term context of 40 to 50 years-certainly longer than the routine political cycle. An independent pension commission would help sustain the changes that are needed.

8:44 pm
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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and congratulating him on securing this important debate on reinvigorating occupational pensions. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in thanking him also for the skill and diligence that he showed as chairman of the Workplace Retirement Income Commission. The report was a fascinating read. It proposed recommendations on how industry, employers and the Government can strengthen workplace retirement saving. More importantly, I am relieved to see that in most of these areas the noble Lord and I are in much the same place.

The pensions landscape, which is always fluid, will see a huge change again in 2012 with the introduction of auto-enrolment, which presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our savings culture. However, if we are looking to reinvigorate occupational pensions, we need to go further than this. We need to build public confidence that such pensions are value for money; increase employee engagement in retirement saving; and motivate employers to provide good pension vehicles. None of these goals is easy, and they have become a lot more difficult recently.

In the past 25 years, life expectancy at 65 has increased by six years for men and five years for women. That is great news generally, but poses serious financial questions. Saving is in sad decline. In 2010, 13 million jobs had no pension provision-an increase of 2.5 million on 1997. The noble Lord, Lord Myners, uttered a lament for the occupational pension. We have seen falling annuity rates, increased longevity and a fall in the rate of return on equities. My personal belief is that some of us in this generation had a free ride because of the discovery of equity returns in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. I suspect that those returns were a one-off. We also saw the abolition of payable tax credits. As a result, UK pensions are no longer the gold standard that they were.

Only one in three private sector workers is contributing to a workplace pension. Other noble Lords cited different figures but basically, if one wants a 15,000 pension, it will require 300,000 of capital outlay to fund. That brings home very starkly the challenge of getting people to invest in a pension.

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

Not at the moment, but their remuneration is going down quite a bit.

First, we must change attitudes towards pensions as a whole. Many people find pensions too complex, the incentives to save unclear and the expected retirement incomes unknown. For these reasons, the state pension needs to be reformed to provide a simpler, clearer foundation to support those saving for retirement. That is what the proposals in the Green Paper A State Pension for the 21st Century outlined: a simpler, single-tier pension set above the basic level of the means test as the primary option. I can update the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, that, should we decide to proceed, we will set out further details as part of a White Paper in accordance with the usual process.

Nevertheless, around 7 million people are not saving enough to deliver the pension income they are likely to want, or expect, in retirement. With automatic enrolment, we will start to see a behavioural change requiring all employers to enrol all eligible workers into a workplace pension scheme. I welcome the introduction of the National Employment Savings Trust as a simple, low-cost pension scheme designed to fill a gap in the market for employees on low to moderate earnings. We are already seeing NEST acting as a beacon of best practice to other providers and encouraging high standards of governance, responsible investment, effective communications and low charges. A number of noble Lords raised the issue of the shackles on NEST. We will keep that balance between competition and choice very much under review. In response to my noble friend Lord Freeman, I am pleased to report that last week the department began its communication campaign to alert individuals and employers to the reforms and to ensure that tailored information is received by those affected.

On top of this, we must restore public faith in the concept of pension saving and, behind this, pension charges are key. Individuals who perceive their charges to be high are less inclined to save, so I welcome efforts by the National Association of Pension Funds to bring the pensions industry together to improve transparency of charges information for customers and employers. My department will offer its support to ensure that real improvements are made. It is also worth bearing in mind that since departmental research places the average annual management charge in default funds at between 0.4 per cent and 0.6 per cent, with none found higher than 0.9 per cent, the case for rushing into a charge cap without due consideration carries less weight. This is especially as new entrants into the market, such as Now pensions, are offering similarly low charges. Nevertheless, I can assure noble Lords that the Government will not hesitate to deploy a cap if individuals' pensions savings are at risk from excessive charges.

As noble Lords have pointed out, there are a lot of small pension pots. There are more than 1 million small pension pots valued at less than 2,000, and automatic enrolment will clearly increase that number further. This is a serious hazard for individuals who want to build up their pension saving. Small pots are easy to lose track of and difficult to aggregate due to the cost and complexity of transferring pension schemes. In December 2011, the Government released the consultation paper Meeting Future Workplace Pension Challenges: Improving Transfers and Dealing with Small Pots, in which potential solutions are set out to address this issue. These include radical proposals such as an automatic transfer system in which pension pots could move with the individual from job to job or be consolidated in one or more aggregator schemes.

Individuals also need to get best-value outcomes. The Government believe that individuals are likely to get the best deal by shopping around on the open market and exploring options from a range of providers before purchasing an annuity. We have been working with consumer groups, industry representatives and other government bodies to bolster the current right to the open-market option by developing a default open-market option. The Association of British Insurers is currently consulting on a new draft code of conduct which supports this aim.

One area where standards must improve is on incentivised transfer, where members of perfectly sound defined benefit schemes are being offered cash incentives to transfer out of, or modify, their existing pension arrangements. It often results in members receiving less generous arrangements and thus lower retirement incomes. We are therefore working with the Pensions Regulator and the Financial Services Authority to develop an industry-wide code of practice which will cover all forms of incentivised transfers to ensure that these practices, when appropriate, are done fairly and transparently and are communicated to the member in a balanced and easily understandable manner.

We need to make it easier for employers to provide good-quality pension provision for their workers. To help deliver this, we aim to make it easier for employers to restructure their pension arrangements without requiring the employer to pay the difference between its assets and the cost of buying out the scheme's pensions.

The department's private pensions legislation will also be the focus of the red tape challenge. In response to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, I say that this is a cross-government initiative that seeks to revoke or simplify as much legislation as possible to ease the burdens on employers and business. We will use this opportunity to look objectively at pensions policy and consider whether the legislation as it stands reflects the department's priorities and is fit for purpose.

The Pensions Regulator has set out its principles for what a good defined contribution scheme looks like, to establish standards for design and governance of defined contribution schemes and ensure that the pensions industry is best placed to support automatic enrolment.

Looking further ahead, we need to build on the good work that the consensus of previous years has achieved. We should consider the role for government in determining scale and ask ourselves whether the high fragmentation of the UK pensions market offers good value, or whether a smaller number of larger schemes could offer lower charges and higher governance, to the advantage of members.

As defined benefit continues to wane, we must take opportunities to study alternative risk-sharing arrangements, such as systems that I might term "defined ambition". Here the schemes aspire to a set level of benefits, rather than making a firm promise as our defined benefit schemes currently do.

We must also consider how to encourage automatically enrolled individuals to save more where they can. The minimum 8 per cent contribution should be considered as it is described-a minimum. Options such as automatic escalation, in which pension contributions increase in line with member salaries, have merit and are worthy of close examination.

I feel confident that 2012 represents a step change in how pensions in particular, and saving in general, are perceived by the public. I thank again the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and I hope noble Lords will join me in acknowledging that we have taken great strides in reinvigorating our pension system for the future.