Asset protection for unincorporated businesses

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 9 February 2017.

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“The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision to amend section 75 of the Pensions Act 1995 in order to protect unincorporated businesses at risk of losing their personal assets including their homes.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 12—Review of actuarial mechanisms for valuing pension scheme liabilities—

“Within six calendar months from the day on which this Act comes into force, the Secretary of State must conduct a review of the actuarial mechanisms used to value pension scheme liabilities under section 75 of the Pensions Act 1995.”

New clause 13—Non-associated multi-employer schemes: orphan debt—

“The Secretary of State must, by regulations, exclude from the calculation in section 75 of the Pensions Act 1995 the orphan debt in any non-associated multi-employer scheme

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank the Committee for its assistance in taking new clauses 11 to 13 earlier than planned.

New clause 11 would help to deal with an issue facing plumbers in Scotland. Plumbing Pensions (UK) Ltd was established in 1975 to provide pensions for the plumbing and heating industry UK-wide. The scheme is managed by a group of trustee directors appointed from nominees of the Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors in England and Wales, the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers Federation and Unite the union. The scheme has more than 36,000 members and assets in excess of £1.5 billion.

Under section 75 of the Pensions Act 1995, employers may, in certain circumstances, become liable for what is known as a section 75 employer debt. That debt is calculated on a buy-out basis, which tests whether there would be sufficient assets in a scheme to secure all members’ benefits by buying annuity contracts from an insurance company. Legislation specifies that a section 75 employer debt becomes payable when an employer becomes insolvent, winds up, changes its legal status or ceases to have any active members in the scheme. Although we must be mindful that the purpose of those rules is to protect pension benefits, the way they are currently framed creates problems for some stakeholders, and we are sympathetic to SNIPEF’s concerns, which I know it has also raised directly with the Minister.

The solution is not clearcut. There are several options for the Government to consider, but each has complications for pension schemes, employers and scheme members. We urge the Government to balance employers’ interests with the need to protect benefits for scheme members. The previous Pensions Minister, who sits in the House of Lords, indicated that she would look closely at how a solution to this complex issue could be reached. We need the same assurances from the current Minister that the Government will work to find a solution for the industry. They could use the Bill to bring forward such a solution.

SNIPEF aims to achieve an amendment to the section 75 debt legislation. Its main concern is for unincorporated businesses where people risk losing their personal assets, including their homes. It wants the Government to review the actuarial methods that are used to value pension scheme liabilities, as it believes that given the current economic conditions, the calculation of section 75 employer debt on a full annuity buy-out basis is inappropriate and detrimental to non-associated multi-employer schemes.

SNIPEF argues that orphan debt in any non-associated multi-employer scheme should be excluded from the calculation of section 75 employer debt. It also suggests that, provided that schemes are deemed to be prudently funded, the Pension Protection Fund should act as guarantor of last resort for orphan liabilities. SNIPEF believes that any changes in legislation should apply retrospectively to all employers from 2005. It would be helpful to hear the Government’s view on that request.

As I mentioned, SNIPEF recently met the Minister, and it has advised several MPs that he confirmed that those objectives could be incorporated in a Green Paper, but I want to use the opportunity of the Bill to address these matters. We are eager to hear whether the Government intend to include a solution in the Bill, and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

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

It is appropriate, given the temperature in which we are working, that plumbers are mentioned. I only wish that some of them were in the Public Gallery to make repairs so that hon. Members would not have to wear their coats.

I joke about that, but I accept that this is a serious matter. When it was brought to my attention, it was my duty and pleasure to meet representatives of not just the plumbers but others. The Government are not ignoring the issue. Although some stakeholders have run an effective public campaign, as is their right, it was the job of the Department for Work and Pensions anyway to get to grips with this, despite the fact that MPs have contacted us individually, such as the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber—

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

Thank you. I have finally got it. I shall provide tuition for other hon. Members.

This issue is important. For the record, I should remind hon. Members who are not as familiar with it as the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber why the employer debt legislation is in place. It is to help ensure that members of salary-related occupational pension schemes receive the pensions they worked for and have been promised when their own employer cannot provide them. I think everyone would agree that that is a noble aim. Were that not a rule, it would have led to even more difficulties.

When I see representatives of those in such positions, I try to think about this key question: if they are not responsible for the debt, who is? Someone has to be responsible for it. As hon. Members will have picked up from the hon. Gentleman’s speech, people who have been working quite properly and, typically in this field, running their own businesses find themselves with—I do not know what the legal term is—a contingent liability that could be called upon. It is not as though they have received an invoice or a demand, or people have been banging on the door to repossess something, but it is understandably on their minds that that could and might happen, which is a serious matter.

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

That is exactly the point. We are talking about often small businesses that have done the right things in making sure their employees are protected and have adequate pension provision, but there is a sword of Damocles hanging over them with the worry and uncertainty, caused purely by this debt, that they may lose their businesses and houses.

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

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. We all agree there is a problem. I do not see how anyone could disagree with that. These people are simply in an unfortunate position, but the Government have to decide, “If not this, what?” and “What are the alternatives?” The hon. Gentleman said, as the groups involved have, that the debt should be passed to the Pension Protection Fund, which everyone would agree has been a very successful mechanism. We mentioned the Maxwell case before lunch. The PPF was intended to deal with failing schemes. It is paid for by the levy payer—by all the successful pension schemes—and I am sure they complain because it is a significant amount of money, but everyone would agree that it has been successful.

In this case, we would place an unfair burden on the PPF, because we are not talking about failing schemes. Many of them are successful and proper. That is why I mentioned a contingent liability. If it is your liability— I do not mean yours, Ms Buck, but anyone’s—it is real to you. It is not quite as real as having an invoice or a demand, but it is there all the time. I do not deny that. However, passing the debt to the PPF would place an unfair burden on the PPF and its levy payers.

Like so many issues facing defined-benefit schemes, the problem is complex and finding a solution is difficult. I accept that it is for the Government to address it. That is what we are elected and paid for. But like everything else in government, there is not an instant, easy solution. It is worth highlighting the fact that the Government have already made significant changes to the legislation in response to representations made by some employers. A number of mechanisms have been made available in employer debt regulations whereby only part of the debt or none may be payable. There are eight such mechanisms in legislation. A wide variety of circumstances can arise, because there are a lot of diverse scheme structures. The best example, which has been discussed with the plumbers and those making similar representations, is flexible apportionment arrangements, which permit an employer debt attributable to the departing employer to be shared among the remaining employers. That sounds attractive, but it is part of a triangle of previous employers, remaining employers and the PPF—it is about which of them gets kicked with this liability. Each group is obviously going to be in favour of the others getting it. I say that not to cast any aspersions or to make a value judgment, but it has to go somewhere, and in the end that is for Government to decide. On the face of it, however, that would be such a solution.

New clause 11 calls specifically for a change by regulations to the employer debt legislation in the Pensions Act 1995. It is aimed at providing protection for the owners of unincorporated businesses. Many of the plumbers who have made representations happen to be self-employed because that is the structure of their business, but they are not self-employed and running a large business. They just happen to be a business owner who is self-employed. A mandatory provision to protect one group of employers from their responsibility for an employer debt, for which there may be personal liability, again boils down to that debt needing to be met in some way by others in order to safeguard members’ pensions. It is true to say that such an approach would also conflict with existing employer debt provision that recognises the wide range of employers who participate in occupational pension schemes. It does not differentiate between different types of business structure in relation to employer debt duties.

Secondary legislation, in the form of the 2005 employer debt regulations, already includes a range of mechanisms to facilitate the management of an employer debt when an employer ceases to employ active members of a pension scheme. The regulations operate so that in some circumstances, only part of the debt or no debt may be payable. Those regulations are currently under review. We had a call for evidence about the operation of employer debt legislation in non-associated multi-employer schemes. We needed to call for evidence because there are losers and winners. It is the role of Government to try to assess interests, and some form of judgment has to be made. This area of legislation is extremely complex, and we have to check and consider things carefully.

I reiterate that we are not kicking the can down the road—it is not that we do not want to make a decision. It is a complex issue, and we are looking to consult on specific proposals in the very near future. In any case, a whole range of new proposals might come about in our Green Paper on defined-benefit schemes. If I say the release of that Green Paper is imminent, that could mean anything from tomorrow onwards, but it will be very soon.

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

I think the Minister will accept that I am trying to be helpful to the Government in trying to find a resolution to this situation. Let us look at the wording of new clause 11 again:

“The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision to amend section 75 of the Pensions Act 1995 in order to protect unincorporated businesses at risk of losing their personal assets including their homes.”

I would be content if we could get an assurance that the Government are willing to work together with us to solve this problem. The Green Paper will be coming forward, and I appreciate that the Minister has said he is prepared to look at this matter and see whether there is a resolution that can be found that would not have any unintended consequences,. I seek assurance from the Government that that will be the case. I know the Minister cannot be too prescriptive about the Green Paper at this stage, but I hope there is willingness to ensure that these issues of actuarial valuations will be taken into account in it.

Order. I remind hon. Gentleman that he is making an intervention, not a speech.

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

Sorry, Ms Buck; I will sum up. I am trying to get to a consensus, so that we can work together on this.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2:15, 9 February 2017

I think I understand the hon. Gentleman’s intervention; I accept that he did not mean it to become a speech, but I think it did. He knows, because I have told him privately, that it is the Government’s intention to resolve this issue. I have stated many times that I cannot go into what will be in the Green Paper. I also cannot accept that the new clause should be included in the Bill, because we are not ready for it. We do not have a solution; there is no simple solution.

The hon. Gentleman has been involved, not actually in this issue but in many others to do with asset management and financial services, and knows that everything is more complex than it first appears. I have accepted that there is a problem, I have mentioned that there are different entities that have to deal with it, and I have accepted that we have to try to reach a solution—by consensus, I hope. However, I cannot give him that good news today; I have to resist the new clause being added to the Bill.

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair and to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. The experience of the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber comes through very clearly.

I hope I can offer some help to the Committee. I realise that this is a complex area, but the hon. Gentleman’s new clause does not actually encompass the extent of the problem, which goes further. Under the old rules—extra-statutory concession C16 on the winding-up of companies, which was used widely until 2012—a group of directors or owners could wind up a company using a very informal method, but that did not cease their liabilities to that company. That liability extended for 20 years afterwards. That was then formalised under section 1030A of the Corporation Tax Act 2010, which gave a statutory basis to the informal winding up of companies with assets of less than £25,000. That provision is still used very widely. Directors or owners of such companies being wound up under that statutory method could still face 20 years of future liabilities, so although the hon. Gentleman has identified a problem in the system, it does not just apply to unincorporated associations.

The effect of the section 1030A of the 2010 Act, which came into force on 1 March 2012, is that directors and owners of slightly larger companies are going down the route of a formal liquidation, which terminates their liabilities for ever more. However, hundreds—if not thousands—of old, smaller companies using the old extra-statutory concession will still be caught by a section 75 notice. This is a very wide issue that does not apply only to unincorporated associations, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s new clause is enough to close down his concerns on future liabilities. Personally, I accept the Minister’s assurances, but I think this is the start of a wider debate as to how those liabilities can be cut down.

In the hon. Gentleman’s new clause 12, there is a problem with determining the proper value of a pension liability. It is not as sharp as just the transfer value that is often given, and we will need in future to be a little bit cleverer in how we actuarially assess pension liabilities.

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

On the basis of the Minister’s response, I will certainly not push the new clause to a vote. We have received assurances that the Government will look at these issues; I hope they will not only be addressed in the Green Paper, but that there is the possibility of legislation as a result of that. I think we all recognise—there is a consensus on this—that we have to make sure we can resolve this problem for the benefit or incorporated and unincorporated businesses. On that basis, I will happily leave things as they are for now. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 2