Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:13 pm on 30th January 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 9:13 pm, 30th January 2017

I am grateful for that ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. Although we have made significant improvements in terms of pensioner poverty, I have to say it is a disappointment that there are still outstanding problems. Under our pension system, of which we should be guardians, one in seven pensioners still unfortunately lives in poverty. We are the fifth richest country in the world, so we should be able to ensure that our pension system provides dignity and security in retirement. Currently, it does not. For me, this a significant failure of our pension system and highlights a particular failure in the Bill.

I could also talk about the missed opportunities surrounding the Cridland review of the state pension age, which has not been brought to this place, and there are lost opportunities when it comes to the defined benefit Green Paper. It was due later this year, but it has now been decided that it will not be brought to this place for scrutiny in connection with this Bill.

I will move on, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know I am testing your patience. [Interruption.] That is a bit unkind. Closer to home and in relation to the Bill, it does very little to build—[Interruption.] Do any Conservative Members want to intervene? Okay, I will carry on.

The Bill does very little to build on the success of Labour’s auto-enrolment policy by ensuring that saving into master trusts is accessible and encouraged for a number of groups currently excluded from auto-enrolment provision. I recognise that the Government have announced a review of auto-enrolment, but again, why is this not in the Bill?

Let me speak briefly about the issue of low-income savers’ access to saving in master trusts. Under the policy of auto-enrolment developed by my party, working people would be automatically enrolled in a master trust scheme once their earnings cross the trigger of just over £5,000. The logic of this proposal was that people would begin to save towards an occupational pension at the same earnings level at which they began to pay national insurance contributions. The coalition Government increased this earnings threshold to £10,000, denying millions of low earners the automatic right to save towards a relatively low-cost occupational pension through a master trust. Given the generational crisis developing in our pension system, we believe that more needs to be done to include low earners in savings provision and encourage retirement planning.

That is also true for the self-employed. Self-employed people currently make up to 15% of the workforce, and since 2008 have accounted for over 80% of the increase in employment. There is much evidence to suggest that the self-employed are not saving as much as other sectors of the workforce. Research by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed found that four in 10 self-employed people did not have a pension. Despite that worrying evidence, there is little obvious means by which a self-employed person could begin to develop a savings pot within a master trust. Once again, this is not sorted out in the Bill. There are other examples, such as people with multiple jobs and carers, of those who do not have access to, and the benefit of, an occupational pension scheme.

The Secretary of State has just announced that there are gaps in the Bill, relating to its failure on a number of different issues. We are shocked by the vast amount of detail missing from the Bill, when that detail is necessary to achieve what the Government have set out to do. The Secretary of State mentioned that secondary regulations will not be laid before the end of the year. Once again, the Government are, in respect of some important protections, presenting a skeleton Bill, with much of the detail left to secondary legislation.

Although we generally support the Bill, despite its narrow scope, there are a few aspects that we will look to strengthen and a few gaps that we believe need to be plugged. These can be considered broadly under three themes: improved governance, strengthened member engagement and greater transparency. The Bill includes a number of clauses that provide a framework for the effective governance of master trusts. We welcome, in particular, the authorisation criteria set out in the Bill. However, it does not address a number of core principles, the first being scheme member representation.

Unlike defined benefit schemes, defined contribution schemes provide for the risk of saving and investment to be borne by the scheme member. On that basis, we believe that scheme members should be represented among the trustees of master trust pension funds. It is, after all, their money, and they have a direct interest in ensuring that a sound and sustainable investment strategy is delivered at good value. That surely stems from the basic democratic principle that those on whose behalf decisions are being made should have a say in those decisions. It would also be a necessary step towards greater transparency in the pensions system, which the Under-Secretary of State for Pensions himself confirmed that the Government would pursue following Labour’s campaign.

Furthermore, providing for a certain number of member-nominated trustees would not be a particularly new or unique arrangement. Mandated member representation already exists in the pensions system: trust-based pension schemes are required to ensure that at least a third of the board of trustees is member-nominated. Why should master trusts not be subject to the same requirement, especially in the light of the increased risk borne by scheme members?

Let me say something about transparency. For too long, people have been encouraged to put their faith—and, perhaps more important, their money—in a distant savings pot, and have been given very little information about where the money is invested, the performance of their savings, and, importantly, how much the investment is costing, in terms of the costs and charges that they will incur. Neither the scheme trustees nor the scheme members have been able to ascertain adequately whether they are getting value for money. I remember that in 1915, the former Financial Secretary to the Treasury promised the Work and Pensions Committee that if there was not openness about costs and charges, the Government would introduce legislation. Well, it has come a little bit late. Why has it taken so long?

In almost any other market, people wishing to purchase goods or services are given basic information about performance and costs before they do so. That basic principle is a necessary requirement to ensure that they receive value for money, but it is not operating in our pensions system. The Financial Conduct Authority has therefore published an interim report, which recognises a number of significant failings in the competitiveness of the asset management market. Its recommendations have important implications for the transparency of pension funds, especially in relation to the costs and charges being extracted from pension savings by investment managers.

We are pleased to see that part 2 of the Bill attempts to prevent excessive fees from being applied should a scheme member wish to take advantage of the Government’s pensions freedom reforms. However, the Bill does not refer to transaction costs, the charges applied by asset managers when they are making new investment decisions. There is a great deal of work to be done to tackle the problem of opaque and excessive costs and charges being extracted from workers’ savings by investment managers. Currently, the Bill merely scratches the surface. It must become a stronger vehicle for change in this regard.

We believe that, alongside member-nominated trustees, a member engagement strategy is required to ensure that master trusts are communicating properly with those whose money they are investing, and that they play their part in driving informed saver choices on a bedrock of transparent information. The Pensions Regulator’s voluntary code of practice for defined contribution schemes asks trustees to provide “accurate, clear and relevant” communications for scheme members as good practice. We believe that proper member engagement should not merely be a voluntary requirement placed upon trustees, but should form part of the regulatory framework. That would help to ensure that scheme members can make rational and informed choices about their pension savings, creating a more sustainable system.

There are other elements in the Bill whose purposes we want to strengthen or clarify: for instance, the definition of the scope of a master trust, what happens to non-money purchase benefits under this Bill, a number of issues relating to the pause clause, and the status of the scheme funder as a separate entity.

We welcome the Bill, but we see it as a wasted opportunity. So much is being introduced after the event. There will be no opportunity for another pensions Bill; the provisions will be delegated to statutory instruments.