Scheme funder of last resort

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 7th February 2017.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The clause was introduced by the Opposition in the other place. It is intended to require the Government to make provision for a scheme funder of last resort, which would take effect if a master trust had insufficient resources to meet the costs of complying with duties arising from a triggering event and the costs of continuing to run the scheme for a further prescribed period.

Since the clause’s introduction, I have reflected a lot on how it would work. I have had formal and informal discussions with Members of the other place and have met officials, in the presence of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stockton North, to discuss this subject. I have concluded that it is unnecessary to place such an additional requirement on the Government, and I will do my best to persuade the Committee of that view.

I think that we all agree that the Bill’s primary purpose is, quite simply, to bring in safeguards and controls for employers and employees who have opted to save through a master trust pension scheme. The Bill includes new powers for the Pensions Regulator, which will be responsible for the effective operation of a new authorisation and monitoring regime for master trusts. Schemes that do not meet or maintain the specified standards simply will not be allowed to operate. We have just discussed two of the authorisation criteria; as I explained, clause 7 sets out the requirements that those involved in a scheme must meet to be considered fit and proper persons, and clause 8 describes the financial sustainability requirements that will apply to master trusts. The remaining criteria—the business plan requirement, the scheme funder requirements, the systems and processes requirements and the continuity strategy requirement—are dealt with by clauses 10 to 13.

The Bill’s later clauses define the events that, when experienced by a scheme, will trigger a series of specified actions and additional requirements that must be undertaken by the scheme and the regulator. The nature of such events may mean that a scheme is operating under increased risk. Those additional requirements will ensure that increased scrutiny and controls are put in place until the new risk has been dealt with and nullified, or the scheme is wound up in an orderly manner and the interests of employers and members are successfully transferred out to a new scheme.

In addition to the new regulatory framework, the regulator is working closely with individual master trust schemes. That work provides us with insight into the scale of current risk, which the clause has been designed to guard against, and may be followed by the publication of new supporting data by the regulator. In addition, the indications are that market forces are operating effectively prior to the new regulatory regime coming into force. For example, some master trusts have left the market and transferred their members without issue.

As I have explained in previous debates, it is very attractive for existing successful master trusts—the vast majority of them—to take on members from smaller master trusts that might appear to be failing in their administration, since that allows them to add members without adding very much to their costs. I realise that is commercial rather than structural, but I believe that will happen, as it has in other regulated areas of financial services. New, larger schemes are also now entering the market. Such schemes are on a sound financial footing and will actively seek to increase their market share. All that further supports our belief that the risk of scheme members being left stranded is absolutely minimal.

Hon. Members might continue to be concerned that, were a master trust to fail, the members of that scheme might be left stranded. I perfectly understand their thinking, but we consider the risk to be negligible. However, we recognise that we cannot completely rule it out, which is also recognised by the pensions industry. We are currently working with the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association, which is exploring establishing a panel of “white knights.” That panel would aim to guarantee that, if a master trust was required by the regulator to leave the market, the affected master trust scheme members would be transferred to a new scheme. That happens all the time in other regulated fields of the financial services market.

I believe, after consideration, that as drafted clause 9 does not work as intended. If I may expand on that, a couple of illustrations might help. The clause does not contain a power, such as a regulation-making power, enabling the Secretary of State to make further provisions relating to the scheme. That would include provisions relating to the scheme’s procedure and operations. The clause provides that the Secretary of State should consider only the resources held by a master trust and not the scheme funder.

Given the imprecise nature of the clause, I am concerned that it could lead to perverse behaviour, with schemes shifting funds about, knowing that the taxpayer will pick up the bill. We are also concerned that, given the clause’s lack of clarity regarding funding of a Government-backed scheme of last resort, stable master trust schemes might be concerned that they are at risk of paying for failing master trusts and, as a result, opt to leave the market. For the reasons outlined, I call for the clause not to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

I had hoped that I would not need to prepare a speech on this matter, other than to welcome clause 9, but I am disappointed that we find ourselves defending a new clause added to the Bill by our colleagues in the other place, particularly as the Minister has opted to take it out altogether, with limited alternative provision to protect the members of master trusts who are failed by their trustees.

I am grateful to the Minister for the time he has taken to discuss these matters one to one with me and with colleagues in the other place. There remains tremendous uncertainty about exactly what happens if the worst comes to the worst and there is no organisation to pick up the pieces, whether that be a small trust that fails to make the grade under the legislation, or a large trust that could fail in years to come.

The Minister referred to his panel of “white knights.” I was trying to envisage a group of white knights on large chargers heading through the City to help people out.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I should reiterate that it is not my panel of white knights; it is that of the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association, which is a large and well respected trade body, as the hon. Gentleman certainly knows.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

I accept that correction. I am sure the Minister would look grand dressed as a white knight. The fact is that no white knight actually exists.

The clause has a key purpose to protect the pensions pots of ordinary people from being raided in the event of a master trust failing. That is something that would certainly not be the fault of the workers up and down the country who are faithfully paying into a pot; a pot that, although welcome at retirement, is likely to be relatively small. If the Government succeed in removing the clause from the Bill, they will be responsible for not providing a safety net if a master trust fails and workers end up losing their hard-earned cash.

It is not enough for the Government to argue that a failing scheme will always be successfully transferred. They instead must ensure that a funder of last resort is identified in the Bill. The Government argue that there is no need for a funder of last resort because the procedures laid out in the Bill will prevent it from reaching that far. Industry experts across the board insist that a funder of last resort or equivalent is needed. The chair of the Standard Life master trust has called for the Government to be the funder of last resort

“because it’s their policy foul-ups that have allowed the proliferation of unsustainable master trusts”.

I do not know if there has been a foul-up or not. I believe that the growth in master trusts and in auto-enrolment is actually a very positive thing. The chair also commented that Government funding was unlikely and that a levy on the employers should be imposed instead, as it is the employers who have chosen the master trust and therefore they should bear more risk. That could make them think twice about getting involved with less than honourable trusts.

There are options in regard to who or what the funder of last resort could be, such as those I have just outlined, but it is the duty of the Secretary of State to make provisions to ensure that there is one. Does the Minister consider the Government to be a viable funder of last resort, or does he believe that it would be more effective for the employers to be levied? Smaller trusts suggest that NEST should have a role here, but I suppose they would say that, given that they have seen the benefits that NEST has had that they have not enjoyed. There are of course commercial issues there as well.

I assure the Minister that somebody will have to pay if something does go wrong, and that is better decided sooner rather than later. The Minister could cut this part of the debate short by giving a cast-iron guarantee that no one who has had their savings invested in a master trust pension pot will see their pot diminished because the trust has failed, but he has already acknowledged in his speech that he cannot do that. Will he put the Treasury’s money where his mouth is and say that if his own proposals to protect the owner of the pension pot do prove inadequate, they will make the cash available to make good any losses?

There may be an argument that this is not just a straightforward, black-and-white matter, and I agree, because it will be red lines on the pension pot statement if we do not act. None of us really knows the full extent of what is going to happen when the provisions of the Bill come into force. I agree with the predictions that some master trusts will fail to clear the necessary barriers to continue. Indeed, I understand that work is already under way in the industry in recognition of that, to ensure the right thing happens for most pension savers, but—it is a cliché—we do not know what we do not know and there may be failing trusts that might not have sufficient resources to wind up and we must ensure that members’ pots are 100% protected. There is simply no guarantee that another trust will choose to pick up one that is failing. Why would they? What obligation do they have? Why would it be in their interests to do so? I ask the Minister what happens when no other trust wants to pick up one that has failed. There is no guarantee in place.

That is why there needs to be a funder of last resort. We must predict what could possibly happen, even if there is only the slightest chance of it happening, and ensure that we have a protection plan in place. We cannot simply hope that another trust will pick it up; instead we must intervene now to ensure a back-up plan to the back-up plan. The Government must prepare for the worst-case scenario, and nothing I have seen so far convinces me that Ministers are doing so.

What would the role of the Pensions Regulator be in the event of a failure? There are high risks, with high immediate costs associated with those risks, and somebody will have to pick up the pieces. Will it be the Pensions Regulator? Will it have the resources to do so? We must remember that history dictates that there are always possibilities of large-scale failure with anything related to financial services.

Photo of Julian Knight Julian Knight Conservative, Solihull 11:15 am, 7th February 2017

The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points. Surely the point of the legislation is to ensure that, on start-up and on an ongoing basis, the fund and the pension scheme are sustainable. That is the job of the Pensions Regulator. He also mentioned the return of the entire capital. Even in the Pension Protection Fund, it is still only 90% return on capital.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

Yes, it is the responsibility of the regulator to ensure that whatever trusts are set up are stable and ready to go. My point is that, as we have seen, whether we are talking about defined-benefit schemes just looking at the failure of the banks in recent years, there is always an opportunity for catastrophic failure in our master trusts, with perhaps 1 million or 2 million members. I am not convinced that there is provision to protect their interests. Lord Freud referred to this clause as a sledgehammer to crack a nut, considering all the mitigations against the risk that are already in the Bill, but what if those mitigations are not enough?

Again, will the Minister provide the Committee, and people all over this country, with a 100% assurance that the Bill without this clause is enough to protect members? Will he guarantee that no master trust will be in a situation whereby it has failed and has insufficient resources to meet costs? I believe—he has already said it, and I have said it as well—that he cannot guarantee that 100%, which is why the clause needs to stand part of the Bill. By seeking to remove it, the Government continue to go back to the argument that there are enough conditions in the Bill without the clause, such as the Pensions Regulator needing to be satisfied that the master trust has sufficient financial resources to comply with its continuity strategy. There are too many unknown factors out there in master trust world for us to know that for certain.

How can we encourage ordinary, hard-working people to save for retirement and put their trust in a scheme that their company bosses have picked for them when the Government are consciously acting against the clause that could be the safety net? We have seen all manner of pension schemes get into trouble and pensioners have been the losers, so we need systems to be much more robust. Workers need to be confident and assured that the money they have faithfully put aside is given the greatest possible protection.

Another mitigation in the Bill that the Government use to support their argument that the clause is not needed is the regulation of our record management, which will be regularly monitored.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

If the clause is not needed, why not put it in to give people that extra confidence? People have an historically low opinion of financial institutions, trusts and banks, so surely any extra insurance that will encourage people to have confidence is worth putting in.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

My hon. Friend is correct. People want to know that everything is 100% safe. I know that the Minister said that we can never guarantee 100% safety, but we are talking about some of our society’s most financially vulnerable people who are investing relatively small amounts of money in their master trust. They are not going to get a tremendous pension—nothing like what a Member of Parliament receives—but they want to know that their small pot will actually mean something for them. That is why we must have those protections.

We were talking about regularly monitored business. How regular—every three months, every two years, every five years?—and what type of monitoring? Can the Government say for certain that, by the time the regulator has identified a problem with record management, it will still be within the timeframe to resolve the issue without a funder of last resort?

The Government argue that the Bill already achieves what clause 9 is trying to achieve, but I must question the real reason why they do not want it in the Bill. If they support the idea of master trusts having regulations in place to avoid a disastrous situation if one failed, why will they not just support the clause? If they are so sure that it would never reach the stage of needing a funder of last resort, what is their opposition to including the clause just to ensure that, in a worst-case scenario when things do not go to plan, there is extra protection in place? Unless, of course, they are ideologically opposed to the concept of a funder of last resort. It would be a safety net; a guarantee from the Government that they will need to do everything in their power to protect workers’ retirement funds. If that is the case, I am disappointed that the Government do not believe that it is their duty to step in when business fails and that they would leave innocent people paying the price.

One argument that the Government Lords kept repeating was that, in the event of regulatory failure and a trust not having the means to finance a wind-up, it will not be members that will have to pay the price, but the Government are yet to tell us who it will be. When a number of master trusts and pension experts are calling for there to be a funder of last resort, why are the Government not listening? We have heard a lot of words in the other place and here today, but we have seen not action. Verbal assurance is not good enough when we are talking about people’s livelihoods in older age. We need action and robust legislation to ensure that we take every precaution. In the absence of greater clarity about the Government’s insistence that the Bill already addresses areas raised in this debate, it is vital that clause 9 is not removed. We should be covering every base in order to say confidently that we have taken every possible measure to protect members’ money 100%.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions)

I think we all understand that the pension pots themselves are not at risk from the mechanisms we are talking about; it is about the funding of the master trusts. My appeal to the Government is that we have to find a solution to this that will give trust to those who are investing, so that they know that the master trusts themselves will be secure, whether that is from the definition of a funder of last resort, or from particular powers that the regulator has to make sure that, in the event of a trust failure, those assets can be managed in the interests of the fund holder. There is an element of risk—albeit a relatively small one—and we have to try to see whether we can close that down. In the absence of another solution, the Government should think about this clause remaining part of the Bill for now.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.