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Pension Schemes Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:17 pm on 1st November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Conservative 5:17 pm, 1st November 2016

My Lords, I welcome the Bill and declare my interest as the director of a savings business. Pensions are the main savings for millions of people in this country, but the savings level is still woefully low. People are looking towards a retirement that will leave them impoverished, and many are unaware of just what lies ahead. A private pension pot would need to contain around £181,000 now to provide an income of £10,000 in retirement for someone who is currently 30. That is beyond the dreams of most people. However, this is why auto-enrolment is so positive.

Young people need to save and they need to start saving as early as possible, but pensions are not often high on their list of priorities, so auto-enrolment is a real force for good. However, if those schemes in auto-enrolment should hit problems—just as when any pension fund hits disaster—it will destroy confidence in the entire industry. Therefore, I welcome the Bill as a necessary step to safeguard the master trust. I also share with others the concern that we have reached this stage without putting in place some of the protections that are now included in this very worthwhile Bill.

There is much still to be discussed, however. It is obviously right to have various hurdles that master trusts must now jump to get through the authorisation process. I share the interest of the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, in what will constitute a fit and proper person to be a trustee of one of these organisations. Is it to be left to the Pensions Regulator to determine case by case or will guidelines be laid down, covering, for instance, experience and track record? Being a trustee of a pension fund or a master trust is a hugely responsible job, and we need to be sure that people are not just stereotypical but fit and proper for the task that they will be taking on.

There are other things that the regulator could—and, I believe, should—take account of. It is all very well that one of the authorisation criteria is that the master trust should be financially viable but the idea of having a minimum capital requirement seems perfectly sensible. My noble friends Lord Naseby and Lady Altmann both referred to that. As I said, it seems very sensible and could easily be done.

Many believe that the Pensions Regulator is already overemployed and understaffed. If it is to cope with the raft of new work coming its way, it is imperative that it has the people to do that job, and I hope we can ensure that that is the case. I also hope that the regulator will be able to push some of these master trusts towards consolidation, because it is important that the people who put their savings into master trust schemes have access to the widest possible range of investments. Only by coming together in consolidated organisations will the trusts be able to take advantage of the big infrastructure opportunities. For many years now we have talked about pension funds investing in infrastructure but it has not happened. However, I believe we are on the cusp of a real change, where pension funds will put their money into housing schemes and other infrastructure projects—schemes the country needs now more than ever—and investors will benefit from the sensible, long-term match between liabilities and income, which infrastructure can develop. However, a small master trust will be unable to access those sorts of opportunities.

I warm to the calls that we have heard from some lobbyists and other quarters for master trusts to have obligations that go beyond the five stipulated criteria. I think they should have to make much more information available to those who invest in a pension scheme. It is imperative that we get a newly invigorated investment climate in this country. Traditional institutional investors have, on the whole, shown themselves to be pitifully uninterested in where their money goes and in the long term. If pension fund investors were told more about the investment policies of the fund that they were putting their money into—about the stocks and the other investments that the fund was investing in—I think we could encourage a much more positive attitude towards long-term investment, which we undoubtedly need in this country.

At the very least, I should like to see annual meetings at which those pension fund investors can, if they wish, feel involved. The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, talked about new technology and how digital can enable everybody, wherever they live, to take part in webinars and attend annual meetings, even if they are there only virtually and not in person. I would like to see master trusts obliged to open up their proceedings in that way. Transparency is the watchword for us all now, and the more transparent they can become, the better.

I welcome the cap on exit charges. Clearly, people have been grateful for the pension freedoms they have been given and they have been relatively sensible in how they have used them. We have not seen pension raiders driving around in Lamborghinis, as we were told would happen. People are taking out the money to do sensible things—often to pay down a mortgage—and we should make sure that the charges for doing so are kept to a reasonable level.

However, there are a couple of other things to which the Minister referred but which are not in the Bill and which I would like to see. One is the central advice system. Another bout of consultation is all very well but people need advice on pensions and savings—they are not clear where to go for it—and we should make that single source of advice available as quickly as possible.

I also hope that a Bill called the Pension Schemes Bill could move a little further into defined benefit schemes. I know the Minister told us that the Government were looking further and that more would be forthcoming, but given what has happened in defined benefit schemes recently, would it not be possible to look at the role of the pension fund trustee, not just in master trusts but in defined benefit schemes? They got more power in 2013 to ask for information in the case of takeovers, but could we not impose on pension fund trustees whose underlying business is subject to a takeover an obligation to get independent legal and financial advice before agreeing to let that deal go through?