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Pension Schemes Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:14 pm on 1st November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:14 pm, 1st November 2016

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, reminded your Lordships that he had form in this area after being a Minister in the DWP at the beginning of the century. Two can play at that game. I was a Minister in the DHSS, as it then was, from 1979 to 1981, since when there have been many changes.

We have just had a three-hour masterclass on pensions policy, much of it about master trusts but also covering much wider issues. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in a fascinating and, for me, very illuminating debate about the range of possibilities in this vital area.

Much of the debate was supportive of what we are doing, although a significant part of the discussion raised issues of concern. From the point of view of Ministers in charge of the Bill, the good news is that the supportive comments were about what is actually in the Bill and the less supportive comments were about what is not in the Bill, but those are serious concerns, which I hope to say a word or two about as we go through. I want to focus on the issues raised by what is in the Bill. I know that any of the issues that I do not have time to deal with will be dealt with in Committee.

The Bill’s midwife was my noble friend Lady Altmann, and I am very sorry that she is not winding up this debate herself, when she would be able to answer the many questions that she has posed. We are all grateful to her for her work on it, which has enabled us to provide a fit-for-purpose framework for master trusts as auto-enrolment gathers momentum.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made the case for regulation in this area and I am grateful for his support for the Bill. He asked about the timing of the Green Paper. I can go no further than “winter”. Winter is a more broadly defined target than a specific month, and winter is when we plan to publish the Green Paper.

The noble Lord raised a number of issues, including a very important one about the resources of the Pensions Regulator. Indeed, whether the Pensions Regulator would be able to resource herself up to deal with the obligations posed on her by the Bill was a theme raised by a number of noble Lords. The Government and the Pensions Regulator are working together to ensure that the regulator has the resources that are needed. The Pensions Regulator’s resourcing will flow from an annual business planning process developed with input from the DWP, and its budget reflects its agreed priorities. Work has already started on the implications of the new regime we are discussing and will continue as we develop the secondary legislation.

With regard to the initial peak as master trusts apply for authorisation, that work has been anticipated and provision has been made in the Bill to cover the costs of processing the applications for authorisation through a one-off fee. I can confirm that the pots are protected from the date that the Bill was introduced, assuming it becomes law. If a master trust fails before it is authorised, the beneficiaries are protected and there is also a cap on the charges.

The noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Hunt, and others raised the issue of communication with members. I have some sympathy with the point that has been made. I do not want to go beyond my negotiating brief, but it is important that where it is practical the beneficiaries of auto-enrolment should have some idea of what is going on, and I would like to think about how we might do that within the constraints of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and others raised the issue of the earnings trigger for automatic enrolment. It is not actually aligned with the personal income tax threshold but we review the earnings trigger annually, paying particular attention to the impact of this on groups currently underrepresented in pension saving, such as women and low earners, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. This year’s review for the trigger for 2017-18 will consider how to get the balance right between the importance of saving for the future and the affordability of pension contributions for those on lower incomes. At this stage, as noble Lords will understand, I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the review.

There was much comment about the regulations and questions were asked about when we might see them. I take on board the point that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has just made. The timing of formal consultation on draft regulations depends on a number of factors. At the moment, we anticipate that the initial consultation to inform the regulations may take place in autumn 2017, but I was impressed by what was said during the debate about whether there might be more involvement at an earlier stage.

A number of noble Lords raised the issue of transparency and where we are on the consultation which took place on that last year. The Government remain committed to improving transparency through the disclosure of transaction costs, and on 4 October the FCA published a consultation proposing requirements on asset managers to disclose information about transaction costs to trustees and independent governance committees. We are working closely with the FCA and await the outcome of this consultation with interest. Pending its outcome, we will then consult on the onward disclosure of costs and charges to members.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, mentioned the importance of building and maintaining confidence in master trusts—a theme that ran through the debate. He made a good point about the impact of volatility in the movement of interest rates on deficits. I would like to say a word about that in a moment.

On pension advice, as my noble friend Lord Freud said when introducing the debate, we are consulting on how we get that right. Public financial guidance is an important issue for both the Treasury and the DWP. Ministers in both departments are working towards a common goal to ensure that consumers can access the help that they need to make effective financial decisions. We intend to consult later this year and that document will, as my noble friend said in his opening speech, include proposals for a single guidance body and its governance structure. In the meantime, the Money Advice Service, the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise will continue business as usual.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, raised an interesting point about portability. I do not have the answer but given how many people move jobs, it is an interesting question: what happens to the auto-enrolment with a particular employer which they started with? I would like to reflect on that point.

Related to what I said earlier about communication with members, member engagement has been quite a challenging area in which to legislate. We will return to this in later debates. Although they are not specified in the Bill, there are apparently existing powers in relation to communication. I would like to take that forward, as I said a few moments ago.

My noble friend Lord Naseby welcomed the Bill but asked why there was not a de minimis level of capital adequacy. The answer is that we have got to the same destination but taken a slightly different route by looking at financial sustainability. As a number of noble Lords raised this point, it is perhaps worth clarifying how the regulator will determine how much funding a scheme has to hold before it gets authorised. The regulator, taking account of members’ interests and the circumstances of the master trust as set out in its business plan, will have to be satisfied that the scheme has adequate resources available to meet its set-up costs and running costs, particularly until it reaches break-even point, and to cover the cost of complying with its continuity strategy and legislative requirements, should the scheme have a triggering event. This includes sufficient capital to cover the costs of winding up the scheme without recourse to members’ savings, if this becomes necessary. We think that is a slightly better bespoke model to adopt, rather than a one-size-fits-all model for capital requirement.

My noble friend Lord Naseby also raised a theme which ran through the whole debate, about balancing the freedom of the individual to do what he or she wants with his or her money against the need to make sure that individuals do not run out of funds as they grow older. In that connection, he raised exit charges. I understand that few schemes covered by the Bill have exit charges and I will say a word or two about that in a moment. On his question about the mutual or not-for-profit sector, these are usually defined benefit schemes. As such, they are not subject to the authorisation regime in the Bill.

My noble friend also raised a point, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, my noble friend Lord Flight and others, about the impact that changes in interest rates have on the deficit in a pension fund. I was struck by the force of those arguments and wondered whether there was not a better way of measuring this, as my noble friend Lord Flight suggested. You can have a perfectly well-run pension fund that has consistently outperformed the index and has all the liquidity it needs to meet its immediate obligations, with a well-resourced employer standing behind it. But the way that the deficit is measured can mean that, if interest rates go down, a huge deficit may suddenly appear as if from nowhere—with the implications that my noble friend mentioned on dividend policy and investment policy. This issue needs exploring and the Government are responding to these concerns. We will issue a Green Paper over the winter, which will explore this area and seek to stimulate an informed debate on whether government intervention would be helpful, as my noble friend suggested, and whether there are other ways of measuring the deficits in pension funds.