Pension Schemes Bill — Committee (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 7th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:30 pm, 7th January 2015

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate and I welcome the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, who is part of a dream team with the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy—a dream team for the Opposition, if I may correct my earlier slip of the tongue. In response to the point that was dealt with by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and raised by my noble friend Lord German, I am told that there are no published figures on mergers but, anecdotally, it certainly seems the case that there is a trend. Whether that would continue with the new reforms is another issue but I think that there is, anecdotally, such a trend at the moment.

The amendment would impose a fiduciary duty on trustees of pension schemes to consider whether the scheme is of a scale to deliver good value to members and, if not, to consider a merger with another scheme. The Government are interested in scale, in so far as it may help schemes to improve quality and lower charges, and to be fair, I am sure that that is what inspired Amendment 7. However, we are not interested in scale as an aim in itself. The Government believe that forcing scale does not necessarily drive good governance, investment expertise or low costs. Big is not necessarily beautiful, as my noble friend Lord German correctly suggested. On occasion, many small schemes are delivering very effectively.

Our analysis of the current defined contribution landscape shows that there are already effective benefits of scale operating within the marketplace, including significant consolidation of schemes. We have no precise figures on that but we expect this to continue and probably to accelerate as smaller employers are brought into automatic enrolment. Indeed, we have already seen smaller employers moving towards larger arrangements such as group personal pensions, master trusts and the National Employment Savings Trust. They can also access the benefits of scale by purchasing investment or administration services from a large provider, falling short of a full merger.

Noble Lords may find it helpful if I try to explain to the House why we believe this amendment to be unnecessary and why the matter is not as straightforward as it may at first appear. A significant push to force consolidation would come at a financial cost which would be borne by members—at least the initial cost. Agreeing what “sufficient scale” means and policing it would be difficult. The amendment would create some inconsistency across the regulatory landscape as it would bite on trustees of trust-based defined contribution schemes but not on the managers of non-trust based schemes that are either a shared risk scheme or a defined contribution scheme. Significantly, and certainly from my point of view most importantly, it also cuts across trustees’ existing fiduciary duties to act in members’ best interests.

Trustees are already required to pay particular attention to governance standards—for example, internal controls —investment governance and decision-making, administration practice in record-keeping, and preventing fraud and so on. As part of that, they may well consider the benefits of scale. Some employers may prefer a smaller scheme that can deliver bespoke investments and communications to their workforce which a larger scheme might not be able to do.

The Government believe that their flagship reforms of introducing, for the first time, minimum governance standards to ensure that schemes are well governed with low and fair charges for members is the correct approach to drive better member outcomes. We do not believe that it would be right to interfere with how the marketplace is evolving, bearing in mind the existing fiduciary duties that trustees are acting under. It would be strange if trustees were not already considering the viability of the trust and the benefits of scale as they assess its workability.

Finally, the amendment would give the Pensions Regulator a new power to compel a merger, if it would be in members’ interests to do so, and for the Pensions Regulator to use this power in accordance with methodology on which it has publicly consulted and which is agreed with the Secretary of State. The amendment requires this methodology to be kept under regular review. This, too, would impose new burdens and is unnecessary. Agreeing what “sufficient scale” means in members’ best interests, and measuring and policing it, would be very difficult. We believe that new governance standards from April 2015 will mean that trustees and managers will have a general legal responsibility to ensure that the schemes are well governed in members’ interests. As I say, it would be unusual if they did not consider, as part of this, the possibility of merger and the benefits of scale. In addition, the Pension Regulator’s existing regulatory strategy and activities include providing guidance and e-learning resources, and helping trustees to demonstrate that they meet the required standards of their defined contribution quality features. The regulator will also take enforcement action where necessary, under existing powers. This ranges from advice letters, warning letters, statutory compliance notices and monetary penalties to criminal prosecution.

We believe that our focus on ensuring that schemes are well governed and deliver good quality and low charges to their members, regardless of size, is the correct approach to drive better member outcomes, while recognising that on occasion scale is of importance and that trustees should be considering that, as should managers. On that basis, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.