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Pension Schemes Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:22 pm on 1st November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Stoneham of Droxford Lord Stoneham of Droxford Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip 4:22 pm, 1st November 2016

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister and to the House for being a few minutes late for the opening remarks in this debate and thank the authorities for allowing me none the less to speak. I want to make three initial, general points before looking at the details of the Bill.

The very fact that we are discussing this Bill shows the good progress that has been made on auto-enrolment. More than 6 million are now involved in it, with the proportion of people active in pensions going up all the time. This is good news. However, the House needs to realise that the really big task lies ahead as we move to a phase where higher contributions will be required and start to address the fact that people in the country as a whole are hugely undersaving for their pensions and retirement. The situation is not made any easier as young people find it increasingly difficult to move into a home of their own. We have a high level of consumer credit and no longer have the old paternalistic systems of final salary pension schemes. All the risk in pensions is now with the employee and the saver.

However, one reason why we have made good progress during the past 10 years is that we have had good, cross-party support for ongoing pension reforms. Therefore, on this side of the House, we agree that the growth of master trusts now needs some adjustment in terms of regulation and monitoring. I re-emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie: that the last thing we need is any undermining of confidence in the pension savings, however inadequate they may be, that people are trying to make in the current circumstances. Anything that undermines that confidence will undermine everything that we are seeking to do here.

The third point I would like to make is an immediately political point and concerns the economic uncertainty that surrounds the country at the moment. I do not think we should underestimate the damage that is being done by low interest rates for pensions and pension saving and, particularly, to the valuation of annuities. I think it was recorded only the other day that 0.1% off interest rates contributes to an increase in the deficit of the Tesco pension fund of £300 million. That just shows the damage that is being done in the current circumstances. Let us not forget the high proportion of our pensioners living in Europe who have experienced a 20% reduction in their retirement income as a result of the exchange rate. We have to realise that, in the pension field, return on investment and economic growth is vital for pension growth in the future. I do not think that anybody will have voted for the current uncertainty if this uncertainty continues and undermines those three tenets of our economy.

Looking at the issues of the master trust, I make the overall point that regulation is necessary, but have we missed an opportunity in the Bill of opening things up so that these arrangements and proposals are much more proactive for the consumer and saver, actually encouraging their investment in the saving process? I am a bit surprised that the Government are not doing in parallel and together the proposed regulation of the master trust in the Bill and what they are doing to enhance and improve the advice that is available to pensioners and people saving for their pensions.

Everybody supports making the master trusts subject to good transparency. Those who are saving in them should know how they are performing, that they are being safeguarded because there is good regulation. People should also know what the investment strategy is and what the risk assessment is of the trusts that they are involved in. That should be absolutely clear. Those should be requirements of the regulation, and charges should be transparent. It is also important that accountability should not simply be to the regulator; it should be to those who are actually investing in their pension savings directly. I am not sure that the Bill goes far enough in trying to advance that and improve on it.

Given the Prime Minister’s ideas of putting people from the consumer and employee interests on boards, are there any thoughts about their being involved in these master trusts? Why is that not included in the Bill, or is it to be the subject of late amendments? That is one direct possibility that the Government could consider. Does the annual report simply have to go to the regulator? Why is an annual report not going to the individual contributors and savers in these trusts, so that they can see exactly how their money is being stewarded and looked after? What do we regard as “a fit and proper person”? I take the trivial example of my local football club, where I have had huge disillusionment in various authorities trying to define who are fit and proper people to run a club. What is required for people to be fit and proper to run pension trusts? It is not just qualifications; it is actually an analysis and keeping to account how they operate those trusts, how they operate as managers. How will that be done? That seems to me to be the most important thing.

Another opportunity missed in the Bill concerns the whole concept of the digital age. We have moved on in the last 10 years; we can now very easily communicate with people, providing we have their email addresses. Any excuse that it is more expensive to communicate regularly with individual savers is for the birds, frankly, because bodies can now do it quite easily. This would be a good time, when we are trying to get these bodies regulated for the first time, to put in a requirement that they should have those facilities. For them to be approved, they should have those facilities so that they can easily and cheaply communicate, not just with the regulator and the employers but with the individual savers and employees.

In addition, the Bill should have said a little more about the trigger mechanisms and the pause provisions, because those both talk about informing the employers, but there is very little about telling the employees. What happens to the employees or the individual savers when the pause provision is brought in? What will they be told? What will they be advised about the contributions that they might want to continue to make but will not be allowed to do so? Some consideration should have been given to that.

Another important aspect of this regulation is that there has been a huge growth in master trusts, but there may be a need or an opportunity for the encouragement of consolidation going forward. Is the regulator going to keep an account of the cost per saver indices for these various trusts so that there is some indication to people how efficient they are and an indication to their management of where they can get improvements in costs and efficiency so that they operate effectively?

My final point is related, and I have not heard much about it recently. When I last asked this question, I got an answer that took it straight into the long grass. Portable pensions were always seen as an important aspect of auto-enrolment. I return to the issue of pension pots. We have now been in this for a number of years. The type of people who are investing in these pensions are moving jobs all the time. We are probably already in a situation where people have more than one pot. I do not know what the average is; it would be interesting to know. What are the Government doing on the policy that we originally looked at under the previous Government with regard to encouraging people to consolidate their pension pots? It was originally proposed that the pots would follow the employee in whatever new job or saving arrangement they went into. What is the Government’s purpose in delaying regulating on that and what are their plans to address this issue? As time goes on, this problem will grow and it will become even more difficult for the industry to find a rational solution.

I welcome the Bill’s aspirations. It could do a lot more, particularly in widening the power and knowledge of individual savers who need to put more into their pensions. I look forward to following up some of these issues in Committee and on Report.