Scheme funder of last resort

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 7th February 2017.

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Question (this day) again 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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Buck. This morning seems a long time ago, but when we adjourned I had just risen to confirm to the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber that members’ savings are not at risk. The hon. Member for Stockton North might have given the impression of mixing up members’ savings and the funders of the scheme. Though I am sure he knows this, I want to be clear. There are various protections around the savings invested—in trust law, in occupational pensions law and through the regulation of investment managers.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. When the Minister rose at the end of this morning’s sitting, I had actually concluded, so I will now resume my seat.

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

The hon. Member for Stockton North made various points, and I would like to briefly rebut them. I have already made my first point, in response to the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. The Bill adds to the protections by prohibiting increased or additional charges that could be levied on members for the cost of winding up or transfer during a triggering event period, so members’ savings are safe. As was discussed extensively in the other place, the clause addresses the situation where the scheme does not have sufficient funds to pay for the transfer of accrued rights or the wind-up of the scheme during a triggering event period. The Bill provides that a master trust scheme must have resources available to pay for those costs.

The hon. Member for Stockton North asked me a clear question: how frequently will the Pensions Regulator monitor this? To be clear, the supervisory measures allowed for in clauses 14 to 20 state clearly that the regulator is under a duty to authorise these schemes. That is a new approach for the regulator, which will be working with all the master trusts, both before and after authorisation. The regulatory regime is therefore an active process, which rightly focuses the most attention on the highest risk schemes, while maintaining regular contact with all master trusts in the market. It is based on a case management approach, which is not random or ad hoc because it is underpinned by the existing reporting and regulatory framework and activities. Those in turn are strengthened by the new supervisory return and significant events negotiation requirements, which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that the Government have not made any provision to pick up the pieces if a scheme fails. I maintain that that is not the case. The triggering event regime outlined in the Bill means that the regulator will be closely involved with how the scheme proceeds to resolve its difficulty or close—it has to do one of the two. The regulator already has powers that can be used to support a failing scheme. A good example is the power has to appoint a trustee to get into a scheme and act as a trustee—so it can impose a trustee on a scheme and help to sort it out.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that if the risk is so minimal, the clause does no harm as a back-up measure. He used the sledgehammer and nut analogy, which I think Lord Freud used in the House of Lords, so it is a cross-party analogy. If it is a nut, it might be a small nut, but what is going to happen to the nut? That is not said in a very Hansard-like way, but I think we know what it means. I would say that that underestimates the impact of having an unspecified government intervention of this nature.

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

I accept the point the Minister is outlining, but the possibility remains. We know what our financial industries are like. We have seen failure after failure in pension schemes, in the markets and the banks. What happens in the event of a major fraud in a master trust and there is nobody left to pick up the pieces?

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

I will deal with that point a little later. First, let me explain why having unspecified Government intervention is not good.

First, such intervention gives rise to moral hazard. Elsewhere in pensions and regulatory regimes where lifeboats exist, there are measures against moral hazard. We do not want a situation where people can be reckless because they know they can rely on the Government, and setting up ways to get out of their obligations because they know that the Government will pick up the pieces.

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

The Minister has used the word “unspecified” several times, but he has the opportunity in regulations to consult the industry on how it would set up a funder of last resort. That is what we want. We do not expect him to say, “Right, the Government will underwrite this.” We are saying that there should be a consultation exercise to ensure that a funder of last resort can be put in place so that this very small nut that needs to be cracked can be dealt with.

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

I apologise if I put words into the hon. Gentleman’s mouth. It is currently unspecified; I agree it could be specified with compensation. The core point and, excuse the pun, the kernel of the nut is that it would still be a Government scheme, with moral hazard.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman has probably heard significant players in the master trust industry voice serious concerns to us about clause 9. They believe that it could give rise to a rush to exit the market by otherwise successful schemes thinking, for example, that, not unusually in this field, they would have to pay a significant levy over not very much. The hon. Gentleman’s points are all valid in their way but Government have to make a judgment. That is why there is a respectable disagreement over clause 9. We have all thought about it carefully.

I believe the Bill strikes a delicate balance between prevention and self-regulation and Government intervention —something that is very hard to do. The clause would disrupt that balance and confuse the regulatory approach. I do not believe that it is a harmless catch-all. I accept the point, as shown by the banking crisis, Equitable Life and other incidents, that such things happen—I would not say it was because it was a Labour Government during the banking crisis or another Government with Equitable Life that those issues arose. It is not possible to give absolute guarantees, but we can reduce risk to the lowest possible level and that is what the Bill aims to do.

In our view, the risk level is already very low for this type of master trust scheme. That is backed up by the Pensions Regulator’s current information about the very small number of schemes that are in trouble. That will be published but is not quite ready. To create a Government-backed scheme would perversely create a moral hazard, as I have explained.

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

I am trying to find a helpful way out of this because I can understand why there is a disagreement. We can all accept that the risk we are talking about is to the master trust itself, not to the underlying assets; that is understood. I can understand the Government’s position on giving a commitment to this, but might there not be another approach? The Pensions Regulator would take the responsibility after a triggering event and it would have the power to step in. We have the power for the regulator to appoint a trustee; perhaps the regulator might have powers in extreme cases to intervene in the short term to ensure that there is a smooth transition. I know that is not directly within the clause but there might be another way to effect this where we can give guarantees.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his positive intervention. The regulator has a huge number of powers, and the Bill gives a lot of powers that I think would prevent the problem he is talking about.

The hon. Member for Stockton North is forgetting— I understand why—the general rule that the fraud compensation scheme, which applies in many fields, does and will apply to master trusts. I therefore reject his point about fraud. I am not saying fraud could not happen, but there is already a mechanism in place to deal with that.

In our view, therefore, the risk level is already very low. We are against creating a Government-backed scheme because we think it would create a moral hazard. Schemes are currently working to ensure their systems are robust and we do not want them to feel comfortable that there is an entity that will always bail them out. That would not give comfort to scheme members. Indeed, for the Government to say we feel the risk is large enough to warrant a funder of last resort would create uncertainty—in effect, creating the very problem that the Opposition honourably are saying they are trying to avoid.

G

" I am not saying fraud could not happen, but there is already a mechanism in place to deal with that."
How is it that the section 20 of the Pension Act is not deemed as being fraudulent and taken out because it is discriminative and immoral ?

Submitted by George Morley

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

The Committee divided:

Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Division number 2 Seasonal Working — Scheme funder of last resort

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 9 disagreed to.

Clause 10