Annual Member Meeting

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 9th February 2017.

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“(1) The trustees of an authorised Master Trust Scheme must hold an annual meeting open to all members of the scheme.

(2) The Master Trust must take all reasonable steps to make the meeting accessible to all members, this includes making arrangements for—

(a) scheme members to observe the meeting remotely, and

(b) scheme members to submit questions to trust members remotely.”.—

This new clause requires Master Trusts to hold an Annual Member Meeting, and sets out ways to ensure members are properly given the opportunity to be involved.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

This new clause takes us back to our member engagement theme. It would require master trusts to hold an annual member meeting, and it sets out ways to ensure that members are properly given the opportunity to be involved in that. It is now common practice for pension funds to hold an annual member meeting. Good member communications, provided at the right time and in an accessible format, are vital if members are to engage and make decisions that lead to good outcomes during their retirements. An annual member meeting ensures that trustees and administrators can be made human and accountable.

A Legal & General master trust annual report states:

In September last year we hosted a Members’ Forum at Legal & General’s office in London. It wasn’t just a first for us, it was the first ever for any scheme like ours. We got a lot out of that meeting, and we hope that those members who attended did so too. Our aim was to get a better understanding of the things that matter most to members, to help inform our plans for the future. We believe we achieved our aim, and the feedback we got from those members was encouraging.”

I am not here to promote Legal & General, but I commend its attitude and its work in this arena.

Trustee boards should regularly review member communications, and when deciding on the format of those communications, should take account of innovations of technology that may be available to them and appropriate for their members. That would allow the more engaged members to hear a presentation from trustees and senior executives about how the scheme has managed their retirement assets over the previous year and what plans the scheme has to deliver a strategy and manage risk into the future on their behalf. If Legal & General can organise such an event, I think others can too—even if they have vast numbers of members.

If others do not do what Legal & General did, how could they have an annual forum? We must not forget that there is no necessity to fill a hall with thousands of people in this technological age. It is possible to reach more people perhaps by combining a live meeting with an online platform, or indeed to hold the whole meeting online. A recording of the meeting could then be made available on the trust’s website, with an opportunity to give feedback.

The Pensions Regulator’s guidance accompanying its new defined-contribution schemes code of practice highlights AMMs as one way that multi-employer schemes can stay close to members. The new clause would bring master trusts into line with the normal practice in the corporate sector and among the growing number of pension schemes.

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

Again, I find myself having to disagree, not with the hon. Gentleman’s intention, but that this is a practical solution to what he wants to achieve. The new clause would require the trustees of an authorised master trust—it would not be there if it was not authorised—to hold an annual meeting open to all members, even if they cannot attend in person. It is clear what the hon. Gentleman wants.

As I have said—I know it is a bit of standard response, but I reiterate it—we are doing everything in the Bill to encourage member engagement and communication, especially now that the pension freedoms have been implemented. People must have the ability to assess their choice, and part of that is communication with what goes on. As we know, the Bill works alongside the Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Disclosure of Information) Regulations 2013 and the Financial Conduct Authority rules that set out minimum standards for communication. Those ensure that members have access to appropriate information to make decisions about their pension saving, including an annual benefit statement and, for most people, a statutory money purchase illustration, which gives members a projection of their pension in retirement.

Documents relating to the governance of a scheme, such as the trustees’ annual report, the chair’s statement and the statement of investment principles, have to be provided on request. In addition, the Government have committed to ensuring that the pensions industry builds and launches a pensions dashboard, which is very important and would allow members to see their pension rights with different providers across the pension landscape.

Schemes are also developing their own methods of communicating with members. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Legal & General several times and I endorse what he said, with the caveat that it is not the only company that communicates with its members. I have seen a big television campaign at the moment that shows people how to assess Aviva, and I have seen Standard Life’s app. Technology has really helped that kind of engagement. Regarding the new clause, I question whether an annual general meeting is the right way to improve matters. We have already established, for example, that NEST has millions of members from 230,000 employers—and will have a lot more in future. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Legal & General’s members’ forum. Many firms have such a body. NEST has a members’ panel; the name is different, but it is effectively the same thing—a forum for scheme members to give their views on the scheme to trustees. NOW: Pensions, which is one of several competitors to NEST, is embracing digital communication and has a mobile-enabled website, which I have seen.

Some employers, such as Kingfisher and Tesco, are using mobile apps and games to interest members in their scheme. Those are far more interesting than an invitation to an annual general meeting, which apart from the impracticality of organising it for millions of people, is quite dull, I am sure, compared with the modern and user-friendly way of finding out what is going on. In addition to that, the Pensions Regulator provides detailed guidance for trustees about the standards it expects schemes’ communications strategies to meet to ensure that they communicate transparently with their members. The details of that are on the regulator’s website and are quite extensive.

I sympathise with the drive for member engagement and accept that the hon. Gentleman has not tried to turn this debate into a goodie and baddie thing, implying that he is in favour of member engagement and we are not. I think we all agree on the objective; it is a question of how to achieve it. I do not believe that making AGMs mandatory is the answer. Some schemes may want to do that, and that is perfectly acceptable, but complex and expensive logistics will need to be thought out. I agree that some may do it and may use technology very well. It may be that future generations will be able to tap their app and get such a meeting or institution—I do not mean an institution as in a pension fund; I mean the institution of such a meeting. I do not have the technological jargon. That sort of thing would have seemed impossible to do on a screen 10 years ago that we now can.

I want to avoid the situation that the hon. Gentleman wants in which a scheme is obliged to hold an AGM, because the cost will be passed on to the membership and I cannot see that it will achieve the noble objective that the hon. Gentleman wants. I hope the points I have made sufficiently explain why the Government are of the view that the new clause is not appropriate, and I sincerely urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 2:45 pm, 9th February 2017

I do not have the app jargon either, as the Minister will probably realise. We have talked much about engagement and communication over the past two or three sittings. I remain concerned that there is still no real requirement on the trustees of any of the master trusts to communicate with the people whose money they are responsible for managing. We need to make communications much more practical, and I believe that if member meetings work well for some organisations, they could also work well for master trusts.

I hope that master trusts out there will learn from NEST and from Legal & General, and will understand that member meetings can happen and that they can derive tremendous benefits from their members being much more engaged. I would prefer to see a situation in which it is enshrined in the law and there is a compulsion for people to build on what is already happening out there, to repeat some of it and to see a level of engagement that we have so far not seen, but I do not intend to press the clause to vote at this stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4