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 [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:09 pm on 1st November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:09 pm, 1st November 2016

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill. It is a necessary measure, if too long in the coming. As we have heard, Part 1 introduces an authorisation framework and supervision regime for master trusts; that is, multi-employer DC pension schemes which operate on a trust basis. As trust-based schemes they have hitherto been subject to laws that have traditionally been designed and applied to a single employer model, as the Minister explained, although in some respects they share characteristics with group personal pension plans. As the impact assessment reminds us, some of the fundamental dynamics of occupational pensions are not present in the case of master trusts, which would typically involve the employer having an ongoing interest in the scheme and its alignment to the future of the employer.

We know that some master trusts operate on a scale that is unprecedented in occupational pensions and most are run on a profit basis. However, they are not subject to the same regulation that is placed on contract-based workplace pensions. There is no requirement for a licence to operate and limited barriers to entry. There is also no requirement for specialised trustees and no infrastructure in place to support the wind-up of a failed trust. Given that the savings and pensions of millions of employees and their employer contributions are at risk, this position cannot be allowed to continue. So we are strongly supportive of the thrust of this Bill and concur with its rationale and the need to protect members from suffering financial detriment, the imperative of promoting good governance and a level playing-field for those in the sector and, crucially, the promotion of sustainability and confidence in pensions more generally.

We welcome the new powers for the Pensions Regulator to intervene where a master trust is at risk of failing. Unfortunately, despite what the Minister has said, too much has been happening in the pensions arena in recent times that has served to damage confidence in savings and pensions. Just two weeks ago we heard of the mis-selling of what should have been enhanced annuities. We have had the U-turn on the secondary annuities market after savers were encouraged to contemplate the sale of their annuities and then to have it denied—a crass piece of policy-making. There are the lingering problems of the BHS pension scheme and the adequacy of the powers of the regulator and the willingness to use them. There is a continuing sense of grievance among women in the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign, despite what the Minister has said, who believe that they were given inadequate notice of their state pension entitlement changes. There was the acknowledged poor communication surrounding the introduction of the single state pension, the unforeseen barriers to exercising the new “freedoms”, which in part will be fixed by this Bill, and suggestions that not enough people are reaching the guidance service which as we know is now to be recast.

However, we are encouraged to be optimistic by the new Minister, Richard Harrington, who is apparently fostering a more collaborative approach between the DWP and the Treasury. In a recent speech he mused that he would do better than his two predecessors because key Ministers in the Treasury happen to be his good friends. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is a chum as well, and perhaps he might let us know. So we look forward to the forthcoming Green Paper and ask the Minister how forthcoming he expects it to be. I think the answer will be “the winter”, whenever that is.

All of this emphasises the need to make progress on the regulation of master trusts, especially given the growth in their membership. We are told that by January of this year there were expected to be more than 4 million members of master trusts with auto-enrolment assets under management of some £8.5 billion in 84 schemes. Some of these have achieved accreditation under the master trust assurance regime developed with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales but these are in the minority. Zurich has told us that accreditation is rapidly becoming a commercial reality to demonstrate a well-run scheme and it points out that there is an overlap with some of the provisions in the Bill. How do the Government plan to resolve this? Of course, the growth of such schemes is directly linked to the success of auto-enrolment, with some 6.5 million—I think the Minister said that the figure is now 6.7 million—employees currently enrolled

I am bound to say that an example of good pension policy-making started under a Labour Government, being evidenced based, with independent analysis and political consensus—an approach that would have stood more recent policy pronouncements in good stead. However, although the numbers to be auto-enrolled look set to grow, in July this year some 5.9 million employees were considered ineligible for auto-enrolment—an exclusion attributable in part to the coalition’s raising of the income threshold. The review in 2017 is an opportunity to address these matters, particularly issues with mini-jobs, income thresholds and the self-employed.

The Bill outlines a strong framework for the regime, but there is still much left to secondary legislation. Most of these regulations are to proceed by way of the negative parliamentary procedure. We will use the Committee stage to probe the detailed intent of some of these regulation-making powers and we ask the Minister, acknowledging that some depend on further consultation, to provide us with a note of when we might see the drafts, or at least policy statements, to outline their intention. I fear from what the Minister said earlier that we could wait some time for that.

Responsibility for the regulation of master trusts will be placed with the Pensions Regulator, not the FCA. As the ABI pointed out, this involves a significant change in the role of the regulator, with extensive powers and obligations being made available, including dealing with authorisation, determining fit and proper persons, judging financial sustainability and capital adequacy, deciding on adequacy of systems, having the power to initiate triggering events, and more. We will examine these powers and responsibilities in terms of what is provided, as well as where there may be gaps, to see whether they need be strengthened.

Will the Minister say what assessment has been made of the capacity and resources of the Pension Regulator to cope with all of this, particularly at the point of introduction, where all existing schemes need to seek authorisation? What fee structure is envisaged?

The Bill provides that scheme funders must be constituted as a separate legal entity—seemingly not necessarily resident in the UK; Panama, perhaps—if fit and proper persons and only carrying on activities related to the master trust scheme. The Minister may be aware of the point raised by Zurich about scheme funders having established other workplace pensions and the benefits of using shared systems. How does he respond to this? Will such shared arrangements have to be unpicked to gain authorisation? What would the position be if the scheme funder were to become insolvent? Can a restriction be placed on the level of dividends or profits of the scheme funder?

Under Schedule 1 to the Bill, the regulator can make a pause order such that during a triggering event period no new members can be admitted to the scheme and no further contributions or payments made. Will the Minister say what the consequences of this pause are for employers and workers who have current obligations under auto-enrolment? Is there a pause in their respective obligations?

A master trust scheme is defined in the Bill to apply where “two or more employers” are involved in a scheme, but it effectively counts employers that are connected as one. Perhaps the Minister would expand on the rationale for this and confirm which regulatory regime applies in these circumstances. Will such connected arrangements be run on a profit basis?

While the Bill contains a lot about the role of the Pensions Regulator, it says little about the position of members. ShareAction points out that there is a significant gap around member communication—for example, relating to the notification of triggering events—silence on the trustees providing transparency on where savers’ money is invested, no right to be given standard information on charges, where money is being invested and how ownership rights are being exercised. Will the Minister say what has happened to their consultation—closed, I believe, nearly a year ago—looking at transparency from a member’s perspective where investment has been undertaken? Will the Government encourage employer and member panels along the lines of the NEST arrangements?

We should expect some consolidation in the marketplace both before and after the Bill comes into effect. This is no bad thing. It is expected that some will seek to pre-empt the requirements in the Bill, and we need to be assured that this is not achieved to the detriment of members. On the face of it, as the Minister has explained, giving the Bill retrospective effect to 20 October appears to provide the necessary protection to ensure that member pots cannot be accessed to fund the wind-up. Can the Minister confirm that?

It is suggested that smaller master trusts in particular, faced with extra capital requirements and/or increased governance, will likely depart. Does, or should, the regulator have the power to intervene to direct a consolidation of schemes to assist such smaller schemes?

As we have heard, this Bill is not just about master trust regulation. Clause 40 purports to enable a cap on early exit charges in occupational pension schemes and to ban member-borne commission charges. The cap on early exit charges has already been implemented for contract-based schemes given the clear evidence that exit charges were preventing consumers accessing their pension savings flexibly. A fair and consistent approach is now proposed across all defined contribution pensions, and I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, launched a consultation to that effect in May. We support the intent. Perhaps the Minister will update us on how the Government propose to proceed. We similarly support the banning of member-borne commissions and ask for an update on transaction costs. Both these issues serve to highlight the need to be vigilant in ensuring that members’ funds are protected in an environment where for the most part there is an imbalance of economic power and advantage.

The authorisation and supervision regime for master trusts will help protect the savings and pensions of millions of individuals. It will contribute to building confidence for people to save, to deny the scammers and to help sustain our pension system. Although we have to look at the detail, the regime should provide the basis of a consensus and we look forward to working with the Minister and his predecessor to see it delivered.