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My Lords, I welcome this Bill. It is absolutely vital that the Government ensure that people’s pensions are properly protected. The policy of auto-enrolment has been a significant success story in broadening coverage of private pensions and I am delighted that millions more people are saving for retirement with the help of their employer. Improving retirement provision across the population is vital in our ageing society and the Government’s excellent freedom and choice reforms, allowing people to use their pension savings as suits them best, have paved the way for a better appreciation of the merits of pension saving. If we are truly to make policy in the interests of the many, not just the few, then having an attractive and safe private pension system for everyone is a vital element of future planning.
I confess that I was taken aback last summer when, as Pensions Minister, I discovered that proper protections for people’s trust-based defined contribution pension savings had not been put in place before auto-enrolment began. Under the FCA rules, contract-based pension money is protected and those setting up and selling pensions are subject to strict criteria. However, this is not the case for trust-based defined contribution pensions. Currently, members of DC pension trusts could lose their entire pension, and all their employer contributions and tax relief too, if the scheme they have been contributing to winds up. Even if the actual investments are protected, members could lose their whole pension because all the costs of winding up the scheme—if they cannot be paid for by anyone else—might have to be met by the funds in the trust. It is, therefore, most welcome that the Government are finally taking action to address this. However, while we are putting the legislation in place, the House must ensure it achieves its main objectives. Therefore, there are important areas on which noble Lords will no doubt seek assurances from the Minister in Committee.
The House must be confident that the proposed protections will actually work in practice. When I first started working with government on pensions policy in 2000, it was on the issue of lack of protection for defined benefit pension trusts. Post-Maxwell, the Government of the day assured members that their pensions would in future be protected by legislation that introduced minimum funding standards. This MFR regime was supposed to mean that their DB scheme would always have enough money to pay the promised pensions, whatever happened to their employer. In practice, however, well-intentioned standards were inadequate and members ended up losing their entire pension. It took years of misery and campaigning before the Government acknowledged this lack of protection and introduced a proper insurance scheme for the future with regulatory powers to back it up. The Pension Protection Fund has worked well and the Government must ensure that any new regime to protect trust-based DC members will also provide proper protection.
Some of the issues which noble Lords will wish to explore include careful consideration of how adequate the capital adequacy safeguards will really be. We will certainly need to drill down into this more in Committee. I welcome the extension of the Pensions Regulator’s powers and the requirement for master trusts to pay for authorisation and an ongoing levy. However, it is not clear how any new regulations will dovetail with the existing master trust assurance framework that has been used by the regulator to assess master trust scheme quality. That framework does not include coverage of wind-up costs, nor adequately cover employer or member communications to ensure that proper, clear warnings are in place about the impact of such things as using a net pay scheme for workers who earn below £11,000 a year and could be required to pay a 20% penalty on their pension savings, for example.
Millions of people are already saving in master trusts, so noble Lords will be interested to hear from the Minister how existing scheme members will be protected. If their DC trust fails between now and when the new rules are enacted, what provision is the Government making to cover wind-up costs or ensure a smooth takeover of members’ pensions? Will there be a default scheme that can take over while the past records are clarified? Will there be new rules to ensure that bulk transfers between DC schemes can legally occur promptly and efficiently, with immunity for the receiving scheme against providers’ past mistakes to ensure continuity of pension coverage for members of failed trusts? As regards the definition of “master trusts”, there may be some confusion. Currently, the definitions in Clause 1 differ from the definition of “relevant multiemployer schemes” in the charges and governance regulations that were introduced in Parliament only last year. Noble Lords may be interested to understand why this is the case, and whether the Bill should look to align the definitions.
I hope my noble friend the Minister will be able to reassure the House that all relevant schemes will be covered by the Bill, and that all pension trust members will be protected on wind-up. It is not currently clear whether the definitions in the Bill are adequate. For example, a single employer trust could potentially take in DC savings from other employers, but would then not be covered by these protections for master trust members. Will the Bill ensure that the new measures cover all relevant pension saving trusts, whether for pension accumulation or decumulation, so that we do not find ourselves in need of further legislation in coming years because some schemes fell through the cracks left by the current measures?
Currently, the FCA protection regime for contract-based schemes is far tougher than that run by the Pensions Regulator for trust-based DC, and there has clearly been some regulatory arbitrage. It seems strange, however, that an insurance company with a diversified business fully regulated by the FCA would not be permitted to back a master trust. This Bill would force the existing large insurers to set up separate entities to run their master trust, which may weaken the protection for members rather than strengthen it. Will my noble friend the Minister explain why an existing large regulated insurer is not considered suitable to run a master trust, but a much smaller company whose only business is the master trust itself would be considered more suitable?
I believe noble Lords may also wish to understand what consideration has been given to an insurance arrangement along the lines of the PPF itself to cover wind-up costs if no other means exist. If the scheme funder is a limited liability company, and this company becomes insolvent, where could wind-up costs be covered from? It is a little-known fact that the Pension Protection Fund already has a provision to insure all trust-based pension schemes against fraud, including master trusts, I believe. Could this fraud compensation scheme perhaps be extended to ensure that existing master trust members were protected in the event of scheme wind-up in the near term? Imposing regulatory operational capital requirements for DC schemes is, of course, a valid policy but this is no guarantee of member security—think of the banking system, for example. Insuring against a catastrophe would usually be more efficient than every fund setting aside money just in case the worst happens. An insurance option, however, has not been included in the impact assessment accompanying the Bill, even though it was considered at industry round tables and consultations. Will regulators know in advance what amount of capital is needed to ensure adequacy? The actual costs of wind-up will not be known, or knowable, in advance. Therefore, it is important for the House to be reassured that the Government’s new proposals will work in practice, or that there is an alternative contingency plan in place for the failure of a DC pension trust whose records are in disarray.
I also support and welcome this Bill’s proposed ban on early exit charges and member-borne commission, which will enhance pension outcomes for customers. I hope that the 1% cap proposed by the FCA will be introduced as quickly as possible. In all good conscience I admit support for the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in relation to women’s state pensions, where the failure to communicate state pension age rises and failure to allow thousands of mostly female low-paid part-time workers to accrue either state or workplace pensions has caused, and will cause, retirement hardship. But that is not the issue for today.
In summary, I welcome the Government’s legislation that aims to protect members of master trusts. Members’ interests are so important. It is imperative, however, to ensure that the planned protections will have the best possible chance of working in practice and, of course, if any measures can be introduced in this Bill to reduce the scourge of pension losses resulting from scams and frauds, that too would be most welcome.