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New Clause 2 — Qualifying schemes: administration charges

Concessionary Bus Travel (Amendment) – in the House of Commons at 7:56 pm on 18th October 2011.

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‘(1) Section 16 of the 2008 Act (qualifying schemes) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (3) for paragraph (a) substitute—

“(a) administration charges due from J while J is an active member exceed a prescribed amount,

(aa) administration charges due from former active members while J is an active member exceed a prescribed amount,

() while J is an active member, the scheme contains provision under which administration charges that will be due from J when J is no longer an active member will exceed a prescribed amount, or will do so in particular circumstances,”.

(3) After that subsection insert—

“(4) For the purposes of subsection (3) administration charges are due from a person to the extent that—

(a) any payments made to the scheme by, or on behalf or in respect of, the person,

(b) any income or capital gain arising from the investment of such payments, or

(c) the value of the person’s rights under the scheme,

may be used to defray the administrative expenses of the scheme, to pay commission or in any other way that does not result in the provision of pension benefits for or in respect of members.

(5) In subsection (3)(aa) “former active member” means a person who at some time after the automatic enrolment date was both a jobholder and an active member but is no longer an active member.”’.—(Steve Webb.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 1—Obligation to inform scheme members about provider and product options—

‘Providers of Qualifying Schemes under section 16 of the Pensions Act 2008 (c.30) must, when informing members of their own range of annuity and similar products, explain clearly that alternative and more suitable options from other providers may be available.’.

New clause 9—Duty to establish a review into transfers into the National Employment Savings Trust (NEST)—

‘Within two years of the passing of this Act the Secretary of State shall establish a review into allowing transfers into the National Employment Savings Trust (NEST).’.

New clause 10—Duty to review any order on contribution limits in the National Employment Savings Trust—

‘In section 70 of the 2008 Act (Contribution Limits) at the end of subsection (1) insert—

‘(1A) Any order under this section shall be reviewed by the Secretary of State within two years of the Pension Scheme being opened to members.’.

Amendment 18, in clause 6, page 6, line 37, leave out ‘three’ and insert ‘one’.

Amendment 19, in clause 8, page 8, line 1, at beginning insert ‘Subject to subsection (2A),’.

Amendment 20, page 8, line 4, at end insert—

‘(2A) An order made under subsection (2) must not increase the amount in section 3(1)(c) by more than—

(a) the general level of earning; or

(b) in percentage terms by more than the percentage increase in the Lower Earnings Limit for national insurance purposes.’.

Government amendments 15 and 16.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

This is a broad group of proposals relating to private pensions. I shall speak in support of Government new clause 2 and Government amendments 15 and 16. As we have a relatively short time to discuss these issues I will also deal with the other amendments in the group, and do not anticipate making a further contribution to the debate.

Government new clause 2 deals with charges. Obviously, charges are important, as I am sure the whole House will agree, because money that goes on charges does not turn into pensions. The Government are therefore keen to ensure that charges are at a reasonable level and are transparent. For example, following on from the policies of the previous Government, we have gone ahead with the introduction of the National Employment Savings Trust, which will be a low-cost provider designed to ensure that charges across the market are brought down. There is evidence that new entrants to the market and existing providers are already looking at charges significantly lower than many people have experienced on their pensions in the past.

In Committee, concerns were raised about whether the Government should be capping charges. As Stephen Timms, who is responding for the Opposition, is well aware, the Government do have powers to cap certain pension scheme charges. In considering this issue, we became aware of the anomaly that we do not have that power in relation to people who are no longer active members of pension schemes but who are deferred members, and in particular deferred members of qualifying schemes for auto-enrolment. If we want to cap charges—I will come back to that issue in a second—we do not currently have the power in primary legislation to cap them for deferred members of qualifying schemes for auto-enrolment. The purpose of Government new clause 2 is to give us that power, so that if we want to impose charge caps, we can do so systematically and without unintended omissions.

Our thinking on charge caps is that in general, we do not believe there will be a problem with charges. Particularly in the early years of auto-enrolment, it will be the very largest firms that come into the system. They will have the resources and time to shop around, they will be able to strike good deals, and they will have the National Employment Savings Trust available to them. We expect that for big and medium-sized firms, relatively low charges will be the norm.

However, concern has been expressed about the fact that it will be not the individual pension policyholder but the employer who will choose the provider. That may be a small firm that has little interest in the scheme and is choosing a provider because it has to, rather than because it has an active interest in pensions. It therefore may not put the time and effort required into shopping around, and it may choose a high-cost provider. The members of the scheme, who may not pay much attention to its fine print, may find themselves with above-average charges. If that were to become a problem, we would want the power to do something about it, particularly in the case of deferred members. Once someone has ceased contributing to the scheme or working for the firm, they have even less connection with the scheme and even more vulnerability.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 8:00 pm, 18th October 2011

Why have the Government decided to raise the level at which auto-enrolment will come in? By their own figures, that will affect about 600,000 people, mainly women.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will come on to that, because Opposition amendments 19 and 20 relate to it. As I said in my introduction, I shall deal with all the amendments in this group, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I will explain our thinking on that matter later.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

The Minister has referred to the transparency of the current charges in the pensions industry, yet in his evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, the gentleman who advised the Government on the matter—I regret that I have forgotten his name—made the point, which I am sure everybody in the House would endorse, that existing pensions provision is extremely cloudy. It is extremely difficult to know what the charges are, because the wording is imponderable in many instances. Why is the Minister so sanguine about what will happen in future? It certainly has not happened in the past, and it certainly is not happening now.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

There are two significant differences between past and future provision. First, we have established NEST, which did not exist before. It has been set up as a low-cost provider, so we have guaranteed that there is such a provider out there, particularly for small firms, which are the least likely to shop around. Secondly, there is a saying that pensions are not bought, they are sold. In other words, individuals tend not to go out and look for a pension but instead have one sold to them. In a world of auto-enrolment, the opposite is the case. Employers have a legal duty to select a provider, and that makes providers’ costs much lower. Rather than having to bear the huge costs of individual salespeople going out and selling to individual policyholders, employers will instead seek out providers. The costs of the whole process will be much lower, so that will be a significant step in the right direction.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will not, if the hon. Lady will forgive me, because I am going to try to cover about six topics in not very much time, so as to give everyone else a chance to respond.

Government new clause 2 has been tabled in response to our discussions in Committee, and will give the Government a power that I think previous Governments either thought they had or would have wanted to have. It is the power to cap charges for deferred members of qualifying auto-enrolment schemes. I think that is probably a relatively uncontentious power. Were we to bring it into force, that would clearly be the subject of separate debates and discussion in the House, but I hope the House will be happy that the Government should have that power.

Government amendments 15 and 16 are technical amendments to clause 14, dealing with what would otherwise have been a problem in section 30 of the Pensions Act 2008. Although that section currently allows employers to use a defined benefit, hybrid or money purchase scheme as an alternative scheme, it does not allow them to use a workplace personal pension scheme. Clause 14 corrects that omission, but there is a risk that an individual might be automatically enrolled into a personal pension scheme, and then required to pay contributions immediately for up to four previous years. The amendments protect individuals from that scenario. They correct what we believe to be an error in previous legislation. I hope that the House will find my explanation helpful, although I can go into far greater detail if threatened.

I welcome new clause 1, tabled by my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin, who serves on the Work and Pensions Committee. I believe that, in a rather intimidating fashion, it has been signed by pretty much all the Committee’s members, so I think I have to give it a fair wind. It is about what is known in jargon as the “open market option”—in other words, the fact that people often forget that when they save for a pension, they are doing two things. First, they are building up a pot of money—the accumulation stage—and then they are turning it into a pension, which is the “decumulation” stage. Those are two entirely separate processes.

All too often, someone can save with provider A—I will not use the name of a company—and think that they have to take their pension from provider A, which they do not. Broadly speaking, as a rule of thumb, it is estimated that the market can be divided into thirds. Roughly a third of people shop around and go somewhere else, a third of people shop around and stay with their original provider, and a third of people do not shop around at all. There is clearly a danger that at the crucial point when somebody sets their income for the rest of their life, they may not be getting the best value. The open market option reminds people that they can shop around, and indeed prompts them to do so. However, as I have just indicated, take-up of that option is not as high as we would wish, or as I believe the insurance industry would increasingly wish, so we need to do more.

I take new clause 1 as a probing amendment, and it is important in getting the issue on the table. As drafted, it would have one or two problems. It would bring some schemes within its scope that should not be, such as final salary schemes. Those are qualifying schemes for auto-enrolment, but we do not want to give final salary scheme providers a duty to tell people about their right to buy an annuity. That would not be appropriate. The new clause also duplicates some existing duties. For example, the Occupational Pension Schemes (Disclosure of Information) Regulations 1996, as I am sure my hon. Friend is well aware, state that when members have the opportunity to select an annuity, they must be informed of their right to buy one on the open market. They must also be advised that there are different types of annuities available, which may have different features and different payment rates. There are also 1987 regulations that relate to contract-based business. So there are rules about the open market option, but I think we would all agree that they are not working as well as they should. I am sure that is the point of my hon. Friend’s new clause.

The Government welcome the opportunity to discuss the open market option. We believe that it is critical for consumers to think about the shape of annuity that is most appropriate to their circumstances and compare rates across providers. There are comparison websites available, which is a helpful development, but people have to know about them to look at them. They have to consider the option in order to know what questions to ask.

I am pleased to say that, in an example of joined-up government, we are working closely with our colleagues at the Treasury on the matter. I regularly meet my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who leads on it, to discuss the open market option, and we have a joint working group examining that very issue. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire will be pleased to know that earlier this year, we asked that working group to consider what is called a default open market option arrangement—in other words, whether we could make shopping around the default, so that people would have to make an active choice to stay with their current provider. There are practical issues to consider, such as what would happen to someone who failed to shop around, whether there should be a point at which their own provider paid them a pension, and what information people should have. However, the principle is attractive, and certainly my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is keen to go as far as we can.

Progress has already been made. One might say that a working group is often the last refuge of a scoundrel—not the Financial Secretary, I should add; I meant myself. However, this is a working group with teeth. To give one example, the Association of British Insurers, which has engaged actively with us on the matter, has already said that its members will cease sending out to people, with the letter saying that they can get an annuity, the application form from their own provider. They will stop saying, “You can shop around, but here in the same envelope is a form to get an annuity from us.” Instead, a person will actively have to say, “I want my annuity from you; give me a form.” That is a small step in the right direction, but I believe we need to go further.

I will be pleased to hear the arguments and concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, but we are certainly seized of the importance of this issue. We do not believe the new clause is quite the way to deliver what is needed, but the Government very much welcome it, and the spirit of what she is trying to achieve.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

I am extremely grateful that the Minister welcomes new clause 1, but with all due respect, he spoke earlier of pensions being not bought, but sold. He is now talking about the buyer being in the driving seat, but as we know full well, and as we see in the papers every day in relation to energy prices, people do not seem to have the capacity to shop around in their best interests. I do not think that the Government have had a great deal of success in encouraging companies to make the situation better. Will he learn from those mistakes, and will there be a better method?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

As I think I said a moment ago, we have asked the working group to look at making shopping around—[ Interruption. ] Before the hon. Lady heckles me, she might like to listen.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

I was muttering, not heckling.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The working group will look at making shopping around the default situation. Somebody who does not actively choose to stay with their current provider will shop around by default. That is the difference between pensions and energy suppliers. Whereas people are stuck with their energy suppliers unless they choose to shop around, people will not get a pension unless they shop around. That is a pretty good incentive to shop around.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not; I have given way to her twice already.

New clauses 9 and 10 relate to the role of NEST, which I mentioned a moment ago. New clause 9 suggests that in a couple of years’ time we should review transfers into NEST, and new clause 10 suggests that we review contribution limits at the same time. It is worth reminding the House why NEST was constrained when it was established. There was a recognition that there is a market for big firms and higher earners—pension providers are willing to provide at a reasonable cost and to go to such firms. However, for small firms and lower-paid workers, there was a market failure. NEST was designed to fill that gap in the market.

First, the Government created a legal duty for firms to enrol people, so we ensured that there was something to enrol people in. That is what NEST is for. Secondly, we could have created NEST and imposed no constraints, and it could have been just another provider, but because we constrained NEST to consider lower-paid workers and smaller firms, it has innovated in an impressive manner. The previous Government envisaged such constraints. The Work and Pensions Committee has visited NEST and was positive about what it found. Forcing NEST to focus on lower-paid workers, smaller firms, and people who do not speak “pensions” or who are uninterested in them, has created impressive product, investment strategy and technological innovation, which is entirely welcome. Creating NEST with constraints was the right thing to do, and it has been beneficial.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

If NEST is to work, people must have confidence in the products that are going to be delivered. However, there is a danger that other providers muddy the waters of what is on offer. For instance, a Federation of Small Businesses booklet says that it will offer a comparable pension provider with which firms can auto-enrol their workers. The charge is 0.75% to FSB members and 1% to non-members, but they are not comparable prices. What can the Minister do to ensure that such misinformation does not divert people away from NEST?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee for drawing my attention to that document, and I am keen to see a copy. Pensions selling is, broadly speaking, regulated by the Financial Services Authority. Claims about pensions need to be accurate. NEST charges are the equivalent—on an average pension—of around 0.5%, as the hon. Lady knows. The suggestion is that a charge of 0.75% or 1% is “comparable”. We can compare anything with anything, but the comparison is not always favourable. She raises an important point, and the pensions regulator and the FSA will seek to ensure that people are given accurate information about pensions.

Stephen Timms, who speaks for the Opposition, will be well aware that the Government already have a duty to review NEST after the five-year roll-out of auto-enrolment. New clauses 9 and 10 would not repeal the other duty, so they would mean a review in two years and another one three years after that. The earlier review would be premature and unhelpful in the middle of the roll-out. One might want to tweak 1,001 things, but a review in the middle of roll-out would create uncertainty when the next tranche of firms is choosing which provider to go for. Will NEST have its limit lifted? Will the transfer ban go? Those questions would mean yet more turmoil. An element of certainty in the auto-enrolment process, which has been iterated quite a lot, would be welcome.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government had our own review—“Making automatic enrolment work”—last summer. It said that in the end, in 2017, the restrictions should go. I am entirely sympathetic to that proposition, but deciding that today, or reviewing the situation in the middle of the roll-out, is not the best way forward.

Finally, I shall make some observations on waiting periods and the earnings trigger for auto-enrolment. Just to be clear, the Bill introduces a voluntary waiting period of 13 weeks. The previous Government’s legislation proposed that people had to be auto-enrolled on the day they started. That might not coincide with an employer’s pay period, and it might require very large numbers of employees to be enrolled on a single day. That was the legislation that we inherited.

The Bill creates a 13-week waiting period. Somebody who values their pension rights can still opt in, but the Government listened very carefully to the concerns of smaller businesses. Their judgment was that requiring them to enrol people on day one was a considerable burden. The flexibility of a three-month period strikes a balance. We were being lobbied to specify six months and to exclude small firms altogether, but we judged that a three-month period strikes the right balance.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 8:15 pm, 18th October 2011

May I ask the Minister a wider question on auto-enrolment? As he will know because it has been widely reported in the past few days, a report from Mr Adrian Beecroft recommends that the Government postpone the implementation of auto-enrolment altogether. Has the Minister seen that report? If so, what is his response to it?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The right hon. Gentleman is right that a draft report has been produced and reported in the press, but I can assure him that—as we once famously pointed out—2012 will definitely happen next year. In other words, we do not believe that this important programme should be delayed. Interestingly, the CBI does not believe in a delay, either. It recognises that the biggest firms, which will come in next year, are already planning. In many cases they have already chosen their providers. They are getting on with it, and the last thing we need is new uncertainty about the start of auto-enrolment. We will, therefore, be pressing ahead.

Waiting periods are clearly a trade-off, but today more than ever, we need to realise the impact of what we are doing on smaller firms and businesses more generally.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I understand the Minister’s point and the benefits to a payroll department in a small firm, but does he accept that people who change jobs frequently throughout their careers could be disadvantaged? If people change jobs 11 times, they could end up losing about three years’ worth of benefits.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. That is one of the arguments against a six-month waiting period, but those things are a matter of judgment. She used an interesting phrase when she mentioned the payroll departments of small firms, but of course a typical small firm does not have a payroll department, and will struggle with those provisions. We are trying to ensure that the scheme has flexibility, so that we take small firms with us rather than have them resenting the scheme. The waiting period is important in that respect.

Finally, on amendments 19 and 20 and the earnings trigger, which Kevin Brennan mentioned, the Bill originally proposed that we auto-enrol at around about the national insurance floor, which is a bit more than £5,000, uprated in today’s prices. There were two problems with that. First, there was no de minimis provision, so employers would have auto-enrolled people for pennies a week. If the floor were £5,000 and a person earned £100 a week—£5,200 a year—they would be enrolled on the £200 above the £5,000. Under the legislation that we inherited, the contribution at the start would be 1%—£2 a year, or 4p a week. There might have been the odd adverse newspaper story had we required small firms to enrol people for 4p a week, so we took the view that we had to put the threshold up.

The obvious threshold to use—common thresholds are attractive to employers—is the PAYE threshold. Although we will look at the prevailing situation and make a judgment each year, the broad idea behind aligning with the PAYE threshold is that if businesses have to run PAYE for somebody, auto-enrolment will be a reasonable duty. Below that level, it is inappropriate.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Further to that point, if the Government raise the PAYE threshold, as they have previously announced, will auto-enrolment be triggered at that higher threshold? Would not that deny millions of people—those who would benefit the most—the benefits of auto-enrolment?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

As we have made clear, people still have the right to opt in to auto-enrolment, but obviously the bulk duty will be at the tax threshold. There is a trade-off: we can have a low threshold, but that results in people being brought in for what are technically known as piddling amounts of money, for which the costs are disproportionate. The tax threshold appears to us to be broadly the right level, but as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have discretion in the Bill to look each year at the labour market and at what has happened to earnings and prices, and to make a judgment. That is the broad direction of travel, as recommended to us—

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

The concern that some of us have is not that the tax threshold will go up to £10,000—although that is the avowed intention of the Government—but that the gap between £7,400 and £10,000 is about £2,500. That group of workers earning under £10,000 might be ruled out of auto-enrolment, when they are the very people who should be auto-enrolled. The situation would be different if the threshold were going up by the rate of inflation, but can the Minister give some assurance that if there is such a leap, he will reconsider the threshold?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

It will clearly vary from individual to individual, but for many people, earning £8,000 or £9,000 is a transitory phase in their labour market experience, and they will move on to earn more than the tax threshold and so come within the scope of the provision. So even if the threshold is not raised, it will not make a lot of difference if someone is not in the scheme for that year. For some people, they or their household will already have pension rights accrued and it might even be right for them to opt out. People will have the chance to opt in to pension provision if it is particularly important for them, and it is right that they should. I accept that there are issues for that group, but for any line drawn one can ask, “What about the people just below?” If we enrol people for trivial amounts of money, we will undermine the whole credibility of the scheme.

We have now had a whistle-stop tour through half a dozen private pensions issues, and I look forward to hearing hon. Members’ comments. I commend new clause 2 to the House.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I welcome new clause 2, but I speak in favour of new clauses 9 and 10, and amendments 18, 19 and 20. I shall also respond to some of the points that the Minister has just made. I shall begin by endorsing the tribute the Minister paid to Evelyn Arnold, who is retiring from his Department this week. I very much valued her advice and the way in which it was delivered.

I welcome the fact that the Government have maintained the all-party consensus on the principle of auto-enrolment, based on the work of Lord Turner’s commission on behalf of the previous Government. I worked closely with Adair Turner in that period, and I pay tribute to him, and to his fellow commissioners—Jeannie Drake, now Baroness Drake of Shene in the other place, and John Hills—for their very important achievement in the commission’s report.

I say “all-party consensus” about auto-enrolment, but—as I suggested in my recent intervention—there has been some discussion in the last few days about the extent of that consensus. I notice that David Prosser, who knows something about all this, wrote in The Independent on Saturday:

“There is a growing fear that the Government is about to announce a postponement of auto-enrolment…every delay in pension reform will mean a more miserable old age for millions.”

I am glad, therefore, that the Minister has reaffirmed that the Government intend to go ahead with auto-enrolment on the timetable that has been announced.

It has been reported that Adrian Beecroft, who has given more than £500,000 to the Conservative party in the past five years and has, coincidentally, been asked to advise the Government on cutting burdens on business, has recommended in an interim report that auto-enrolment should be put on hold and scrapped entirely for small businesses.

No doubt there has been some lively discussion within the coalition about this issue, and it is encouraging to see the Secretary of State in his place on the Front Bench and agreeing with the Minister. The Financial Times quotes a Liberal Democrat official this morning as saying of Mr Beecroft:

“He is an ideological Tory donor recruited to give voice to deeply held prejudices in the Tory party. His report has no evidence base.”

I also noticed that the Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister told The Observer on Sunday that Mr Beecroft’s ideas would be “swept away”. We perhaps heard some sweeping away from the Minister this evening. I am pleased to hear his confirmation—endorsed by the Secretary of State—that there will be no delay in auto-enrolment and that small businesses will not be missed out.

I welcome, therefore, the maintaining of the previous consensus on auto-enrolment, and I hope that the position that Ministers have put to the House this evening will stand. However, I regret the dilution of the previous proposals in the Bill. Our amendments seek to address the watering down of the principle of auto-enrolment that the Government have proposed. The amendments would reduce the proposed three-month waiting period to one month. They would also limit increases to the earnings trigger for auto-enrolment to no more than the increase in either the general level of earnings or the national insurance lower earnings limit. That is to address the concern explained by my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee in her intervention a few moments ago. The new clauses would put a duty on the Secretary of State to establish within two years a review into allowing transfers into NEST, and to review any order he makes on contribution limits in the scheme.

The Labour Government were determined to build cross-party consensus on pensions reform, and, thanks to Lord Turner’s commission, we succeeded. That was very important. We know that people have been under-saving for their retirement. It is estimated that 7 million people in the UK were not saving enough to provide an adequate retirement income. According to Scottish Widows, 20% of people were not saving at all for retirement. Overcoming that problem requires the establishment of a system that people can be confident will endure beyond a future change of Government. I welcome the fact that the principles have indeed survived a change of Government.

The levels of saving among people on low incomes are a particular cause for concern. While 77% of people earning £31,000 a year have savings, that applies to only 56% of people on average earnings and 44% of people on £18,000. The Office for National Statistics has reported that, thanks to the global financial crisis, pension savings fell by £2 billion in 2009-2010. The importance of tackling under-saving has risen even since auto-enrolment was first proposed.

The final report of the pensions commission in 2006 recommended three steps to tackle under-saving: a higher state pension age, restoration of the earnings link for the state pension and the introduction of automatic enrolment—the subject of these amendments. For a long time, inertia had acted against people building up sufficient savings for retirement. My hon. Friend Glenda Jackson has commented on the effect of complex products on people’s understanding of the cost of products. Other demands on people’s income mean that people do not get around to saving. Auto-enrolment will harness inertia to the opposite effect by making saving, rather than not saving, the default option. We continue to support auto-enrolment into workplace pensions, and we are keen to maintain the consensus established for it. Partly for that reason, however, we cannot support the watering down proposed in the Bill.

Amendment 18 would, as I said, reduce to one month the optional waiting period before an employee is enrolled into a pension scheme. As the Minister explained, the Bill proposes to give employers the option of not enrolling their employees for the first three months of their employment. For the employee, in many cases, that will mean the loss of three months’ employer contributions to their pension pot each time they start a new job. Recent research for his Department has shown that people have, on average, 11 jobs in their working lives, and all the indications are that that number is likely to rise. For an average employee, therefore, the three-month window could mean the loss of 33 months’ contributions over their working lives. That is no small sum, amounting, it is estimated, to a 7% reduction in final pension funds.

The effect on some groups will be far greater than on others. Agency workers, for instance, who change jobs more regularly will lose even more months of contributions. They do not save as much as the rest of the population, and a three-month threshold would put them at a significant disadvantage. As well as the cost to employees in lost employer contributions, the principle of auto-enrolment would bear a cost from this change. If an employee receives their full wage—without pension contributions being deducted—for the first three months of their employment, they might be less willing to sacrifice their salary when the three months are up and so be more likely to opt out when auto-enrolment is applied to them.

According to the DWP’s impact assessment, the waiting period will also hit disproportionately younger employees who change jobs more frequently. The aim of auto-enrolment is to build up a savings culture, but to do that throughout the work force, we need to start young, yet this change chips away at the effectiveness of auto-enrolment for young people. The saving to employers in administrative costs—the Minister touched on this—which the Government argue is the main reason for introducing the waiting period, will be fairly modest: the Johnson review put it at about 2% of total annual costs to employers. I therefore suggest to the Minister that there does not seem to be a case in principle for why the group of employees likely to be affected disproportionately by the change should lose the employer contributions that they would otherwise receive.

Our amendment 18 would reduce the waiting period to one month. We understand the argument that enrolling someone who is at work for a brief period could be unduly costly, but setting the period at one month would lessen significantly the detrimental impact on savings and reduce the amount of lost contributions from employers to employees’ pension savings.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 8:30 pm, 18th October 2011

This is obviously a balancing act, but one reason for going beyond one month is seasonal workers. Given that the summer lasts longer than four weeks—perhaps not in Britain, but in general—the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals would bring fruit pickers into auto-enrolment. Does that not bother him?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

No, it does not bother me. The people in that kind of employment might well fall into the category that the Minister mentioned earlier—people who progress later in their working lives, and the earlier that they start their pension saving the better. If they are in a job for more than one month, I would welcome giving them the ability to start saving for their retirement.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

As someone who, in their young days, was a fruit picker in Angus, picking strawberries and raspberries, I think that the only way a fruit picker might end up in auto-enrolment would be if they had other jobs throughout the year that put them above the threshold. However, I can assure the Minister that the three months of the summer for which one would be fruit picking would be unlikely to generate the income that one would need to get over the threshold.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I could not have wished for a more effective endorsement of the case that I have put to the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

The Government’s waiting period would incur significant costs through lost contributions for 500,000 employees at any one time and amounting to 7% of an average worker’s fund over a lifetime. Those losses undermine the principle of auto-enrolment and substantially outweigh the benefit from the small reduction in the annual costs to employers.

Amendments 19 and 20 would link the earnings trigger for auto-enrolment to the increase in either earnings or the lower earnings limit for national insurance. As the Minister set out earlier in his exchange with my hon. Friend Dame Anne Begg, the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the Bill will link the level of earnings at which people are auto-enrolled to the higher income tax threshold, with the level reviewed in future according to a number of factors. However, like the three-month waiting period, this measure will exclude a significant number of people from auto-enrolment. Those people will by definition be lower-paid workers, who we know already save proportionately less than others. We also know that they are disproportionately likely to be women.

Earlier the Minister touched on the aspiration that the income tax threshold will in due course rise to £10,000. As my hon. Friend said, there would be a worry if all those earning less than £10,000 were in due course excluded from auto-enrolment as a result. The National Association of Pension Funds has pointed out that that would exclude 17% of all employees and 27%—more than a quarter—of women employees. Adrian Beecroft might be pleased about that, but the Minister should not be. Pension contributions would remain payable on earnings above the national insurance threshold under the plans in the Bill. The TUC has pointed out that moving to that scenario would create a big cliff-edge, so that people would get to, say, £10,000 and suddenly find a large chunk of their earnings deducted, having previously not had anything deducted automatically. That would create a significant disincentive, which the Bill ought to avoid, to enrolment.

We have heard about the basis on which the Government intend to raise the earnings trigger. Their worry is that saving will not deliver sufficient benefits in retirement to be worth while for many people earning below the income tax threshold. However, the Government’s own report shows that most people earning around £8,000 to £9,000 a year will not be earning consistently or permanently in that range, as the Minister underlined, but will move up the income scale.

Photo of Stephen Lloyd Stephen Lloyd Liberal Democrat, Eastbourne

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the danger of starting when incomes are too low is that the amount in the pot might be so risibly low that it would undermine the obvious advantages that auto-enrolment will deliver over the next 20 years or so?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman has a point—the Minister also made that point—which is that if the threshold was down at the national insurance threshold, the amounts involved could be tiny. What I am suggesting in our amendments is that the way in which the higher threshold that has now been agreed is subsequently uprated should be constrained. If it is not, a large number of people could be undesirably excluded from auto-enrolment at a time when it might be very much to their advantage to be included, particularly if the threshold goes up to £10,000.

The Minister will tell us—indeed, he already has done—that people whose earnings are between the contribution threshold and the earnings trigger can opt into the scheme if they feel they are missing out. However, people have always been able to opt in; the problem is that they have chosen not to. That is why we have auto-enrolment. The point is that opt-ins have not worked. We need a step change. It is unfair to exclude people on lower wages, because they need to be part of the scheme too.

Our two new clauses would place a duty on the Secretary of State to review allowing transfers into NEST and the contribution limits on the scheme. The limits on transfers in and annual contributions were a factor in creating consensus on auto-enrolment—the Minister was right about that. They were correct at the time, and helped us to focus the scheme on where it was needed.

The Johnson review that the Government commissioned was clear about what ought to happen next. It made the point that the Government needed to review those two areas before the planned 2017 review. Paul Johnson said:

“Government and regulators should review as a matter of some urgency how to ensure that it is more straightforward for people to move their pension pot with them as they move employer, so that by the time of the 2017 review the more general issue of pension transfers has been addressed and NEST is able to receive transfers in and pay transfers out.”

The Minister suggested that to do two reviews would muddle things, but that is precisely what the Johnson review calls for, and I think that it does so with good reason. The report argues that that will be

“critical to the success of the reform”.

If this review does not occur before 2017, savers will spend years with fragmented savings in numerous pots that they are unable to combine. They will lose out on the benefits of being able to purchase an annuity on better terms as a result of having one, larger pot of money rather than several small ones. In some circumstances, they might also lose out due to higher management charges or as a result of deferred member penalties.

The Minister has offered some encouragement on this. I notice that he told a pensions conference last month of his vision that people will end up with what he described as “one big fat pot” instead of lots of little ones. However, no provision to review transfers in before 2017 appears on the face of the Bill, which means that people will continue to have lots of little pots, and his vision will remain unfulfilled.

It is right that contribution limits are in place while NEST is being established, but we should look again at whether those limits are necessary sooner rather than later. The Johnson review recommended that the Government legislate to remove the cap in 2017, which would be difficult if the review were commencing only in that year. The amendment therefore provides for a review in 2014. We remain wholeheartedly on the side of the consensus over auto-enrolment, but we believe that some changes are needed.

I shall also be listening with great interest to the speech of Harriett Baldwin in favour of her new clause 1. I was pleased that the Minister sounded well disposed towards it, although we shall need to know precisely what is going to happen to make its aims a reality. I hope that we can make progress in that area, as well as in the others that I have mentioned in my speech.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

I should like to discuss auto-enrolment in general, and new clause 1 in particular. The new clause has been tabled in my name and those of my colleagues on the Work and Pensions Select Committee and several other hon. Friends. This part of the Bill enjoys much greater cross-party consensus than the matters that we were discussing earlier.

Auto-enrolment will improve the pensions landscape in this country for ever. For the first time, millions of ordinary workers will be brought into personal pensions. Between 3 million and 4 million women will begin pension savings, and a total of 10 million pension savers could be created by the massive nudge that they will get from this part of the Bill.

For a typical worker on an average income, the expectation is that, from the age of 22 until their retirement at, say, 67, there is much more likely to be a persistency of saving. For example, a woman earning £25,000 who is saving 5% of her income would save £100 a month. Her employer would make up a similar amount and, with tax breaks over her working lifetime and reasonable investment growth, that regular savings habit could create a pot worth some £200,000 in today’s money. Pessimists have said that that would provide an income of only about 45% of that person’s earnings in retirement, but I say that that is 45% more than they would have had without this enormous nudge. I welcome this step, which I believe will, in the fullness of time, reduce the number of my constituents who as pensioners really worry about making ends meet.

Albert Einstein described compound interest as the eighth wonder of the world, but sadly too many Britons have learned only about the negative effects of compound interest on their credit cards. However, with auto-enrolment in pension savings, many more will learn of the plus side for their personal balance-sheets.

New clause 1 was tabled because many of us are concerned about the point at which individuals retire and convert their pot of money into their retirement income. According to the Minister earlier, about 60% of people with such a retirement pot do not move to another provider at the time they take their retirement income. Just as auto-enrolment is designed to nudge a person out of inertia about their pensions savings, so new clause 1 would give a person a great big nudge to prevent them from failing to shop around for a better retirement income.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 8:45 pm, 18th October 2011

Does the hon. Lady accept that there might also be a nudge to the pension providers? If they know that they will not automatically get the business from those who have saved with them throughout the lifetime of their pension savings scheme and that that group of people is likely to shop around, those pension providers might improve the annuity on offer to individuals.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

That is an excellent point, and I hope we all fervently agree that competition in this area would be an excellent improvement. Locking in your retirement income is the second most important financial decision that you will ever make. I apologise; I do not mean you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but an individual.

Unlike buying a house, however, it is a completely irreversible decision—one that will last for the rest of the individual’s life.

The different rates offered by different providers could mean one’s retirement income being as much as 20% lower if one does not shop around. If we are unlucky enough to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, a heart condition, kidney failure, certain types of cancer, multiple sclerosis or chronic asthma or if we smoke, the one bright side is that a 40% higher retirement income could be achieved by shopping around. People who have enjoyed good health in their career but been in a hazardous occupation such as mining might find someone who will offer them a better retirement income. Malcolm Wicks, who is no longer in his place, knows that this does not apply to the state pension, but for the pensions we are talking about that involve the insurance market, those factors do apply. My fellow Select Committee members and I thus feel strongly about the value of this particular approach.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Equalities)

I am pleased to welcome the hon. Lady’s new clause. Does she agree that many people are reluctant or even in denial when it comes to facing decisions about their pensions and that there is a real opportunity here to spread a good news message about both the value of saving and making positive decisions about how to invest the product of that saving, thus providing an opportunity for the pensions industry to get on the front foot in engaging people in their long-term financial security?

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

I welcome that sensible intervention. I think this will completely transform the landscape. I spoke about an individual with a £200,000 lump sum at retirement. If we multiply that by the up to 10 million additional savers that we could be looking at, it shows how this country’s savings culture is going to be transformed. The scale of the issue to which new clause 1 refers will get much bigger over time.

The Minister reassured us in his earlier comments that there is a cross-departmental working group. I certainly hope that that group will move quickly to come up with some firm recommendations. I know that all who are signatories to this particular new clause look forward to that. We look forward, too, to seeing the action that will come about as a result.

Photo of Teresa Pearce Teresa Pearce Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

I strongly support the principle of auto-enrolment. As was pointed out by Harriett Baldwin, it means that from 2012 onwards, millions of people will save for a pension for the first time. We need a low-cost, trustworthy system in the United Kingdom if we are to begin to lift future generations out of pensioner poverty.

I fully support the establishment of NEST, as currently only 50% of employees contribute to a private pension, and for many of those on lower incomes the current system is poor. Research has shown that if a typical British and a typical Dutch person save exactly the same amount for their retirement, the Dutch person will end up with a 50% larger pension under the current scheme. I believe that that is because in the UK it is often not clear how high pension charges can be. For instance, a person who is sold a pension and charged at 1.5% per annum may not realise that over the lifetime of the pension, 38% of their possible income could be lost to fees.

In the past, pension companies were unwilling to provide the low-cost pensions of the type needed under auto-enrolment, as they felt that the ordinary low-paid workers had what the industry deemed “unattractive lives”—a somewhat derogatory term which simply meant that it was not easy to make money out of those policies. Indeed, it was because of the failure of the current structure to provide such pensions that it was necessary to establish NEST.

I welcome auto-enrolment, I welcome NEST and I welcome new clause 2, but three points cause me concern. My concern about auto-enrolment was prompted by some of the evidence given to the Work and Pensions Committee relating to a lack of regulation. I was troubled to hear that there would be no restrictions on how workplace pension savings are invested, and no record-keeping requirements for providers. The meeting between the Select Committee and the Pensions Regulator gave me very little reassurance. It appears that during the drafting of the Bill, many interested parties gained concessions. Employers, whether large, small or micro—along with the pensions industry—have been pleased to note that restrictions will be placed on NEST, but not necessarily on other alternative providers.

I believe that the restrictions placed on contributions to NEST, a vehicle for workers whose employers have no pension provision, may push some employers who are new to the pensions arena towards less scrupulous pension providers, I realise that NEST is aimed at lower earners, but some of the restrictions placed on it may nudge employers who are baffled by the choices facing them towards a pension provider that does not have such restrictions, but may well provide an unattractive pension scheme for the employee. It appears that the industry and employers have been around the negotiating table, but that the employees’ voice has not yet been heard.

If employers reject NEST because of the contribution limit, or other limits, they may place employees in schemes with unfairly high charges. I am deeply concerned about the apparent lack of a quality test for schemes that would be deemed to be a qualifying alternative to NEST. We know from past mis-selling scandals that too few people understand how charges, and pensions, work, and that—as in the case of the mis-selling of endowment policies—it can take many years for such practices to come to light. I ask the Minister to consider, with the benefit of hindsight in regard to previous mis-selling problems, what measures he intends to take to ensure that we do not store up similar troubles with auto-enrolment outside NEST.

My second point, which the Minister has touched on, relates to the ban on transfers to NEST, which resulted from lobbying from the pensions industry and which will benefit that industry at the expense of employees in the scheme. Under the current rules, people who are auto-enrolled in a scheme and go into NEST will not be able to move existing pots into the scheme. Such a ban cannot benefit the very employees and future pensioners whom we are trying to assist; it can only support the industry. I believe that a modern pension in a modern age should be portable, and that provisions for transfers in and out of NEST should be included in the Bill even if they cannot be implemented immediately. I welcomed some of the reassurances given by the Minister in his opening remarks.

My third reason for concern is the three-month waiting period. Although I understand the need to balance the administrative burden for businesses, it means that half a million fewer people will be automatically enrolled. As has been pointed out twice already today, nowadays many people have 11 different employers over their lifetimes. I would support a reduction to one month. Nevertheless, employees are currently able to opt in to the system from the first day of their employment, but they need to know that they have that right. I urge the Minister to amend the measures to require employers to ensure that employees are aware from when they start their employment that they can opt in from day one and receive employer pensions contributions.

The pensions cap combined with the three-month opt-out and the inability to transfer into NEST will prevent casual workers and part-time workers—mainly women—from building a decent pot, even though that is our aim. I ask the Minister to consider these concerns and in his closing remarks to give the House further assurances as to how they can be addressed.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

I rise to speak in support of the new clause of Harriett Baldwin. I also strongly endorse everything my hon. Friend Teresa Pearce has just said. I, too, strongly support auto-enrolment. It offers a genuine breakthrough in attracting those people who presume that saving has nothing to offer them, which is not infrequently because their wages have been extremely low.

This scheme requires greater Government support, however. I was concerned by the Minister’s somewhat sanguine attitude towards what the established pensions industry is going to do. As the hon. Member for West Worcestershire said, millions of people will for the first time feel encouraged to begin to save for their future.

Those people have always been out there, but the existing pensions industry has done absolutely nothing to attract them into savings. If it is suddenly interested in this new market, I wonder what it finds so attractive. The Minister referred to the CBI, which is a confederation of major employers. However, from my point of view the real silver lining of the scheme is that it will attract employers who employ only a few staff and their employees.

I am not making a party political point here, but we are currently in a period when people’s standards of living are falling. The most recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that most people’s standard of living has fallen by 7%. That will serve only to reinforce the existing reluctance of small businessmen and their employees on low incomes to see any benefits in saving for the future, and the pensions industry does not seem in any way geared up to make it attractive.

My hon. Friend spoke about the mis-selling scandals of the past. I need only refer to payment protection insurance. The mis-selling of that was conducted by bankers, and at that time they were considered to be rock-solid people, although that assessment has now changed dramatically in this country and the entire world. There have been far too many examples of excessive charges. I have also referred to the impenetrable documents issued to us by our pension providers. The problem is not simply their length or the smallness of the print; they are completely incomprehensible.

I understand that the Government cannot simply say to everybody, “Listen, the only scheme you should go into is this new scheme, NEST.” However, as that option is not available to them, they must work with the existing pensions industry to ensure that safeguards are in place.

The Government have attempted to make some changes in another supposedly competitive industry: the energy industry. They have markedly failed, however. There is no genuine competition in that industry. We, the people who have to pay the bills, know that, and Which? has said it, as have Ofgem and the Government.

This measure is a major step forward and, as I have said, I absolutely endorse it, because it genuinely seems to be a way of ensuring that people can have a more secure future for themselves. Not only that, but we also hope it will relieve the tax burden for generations to come and it should give people a greater sense of being in charge of their own destinies. However, that is not possible if they are not absolutely satisfied and guaranteed that the pensions being sold are actually transparent and honest, and that the detail is specific and clear to them—

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the clause be read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

New clause 2 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).