Master Trust Schemes: Review of Participation

Part of Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 9 February 2017.

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

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

I was pleased to table this vital new clause, which attempts to widen access to master trust saving for those whom this Government have left excluded for too long. As it stands, the Bill does little to build on the success of Labour’s auto-enrolment policy and ensure that saving into master trusts is accessible and encouraged for the number of groups that evidence suggests are not saving adequately for their retirement.

I recognise that the Government have announced a review of the operation of auto-enrolment into master trust saving, but its scope is broad, with few specifics in the terms of reference published yesterday. It is vital that the review specifically addresses the question of how we can improve master trust saving among the groups specified in the new clause. That will ensure that the Bill delivers plans that strengthen security and dignity in retirement. The Minister may already be wondering why I am pursuing the new clause when it appears he has the matter in hand. He may have it in hand, but there is merit in naming some of the very specific groups who most need change and in implementing the recommended changes.

It is a testament to the last Labour Government that 10 million additional workers are estimated to be newly saving or saving more as a result of auto-enrolment into master trusts. It has led to an additional £17 billion of pension saving being put away, mostly by low-income workers. Nevertheless, many excluded groups remain, in part due to the actions of this Government, who increased the triggering threshold at which workers were automatically enrolled into a master trust saving scheme. According to the latest Department for Work and Pensions statistics, 37% of female workers, 33% of workers with a disability and 28% of black and minority ethnic workers are not eligible for master trust saving through auto-enrolment. Critically, those groups are over-represented among low earners, the self-employed, those with multiple jobs and carers—the areas we believe that the Government should focus on in their review, as set out in the new clause. I hope they will.

At the end of last year, the Pensions Policy Institute published a report assessing future trends in defined-contribution pension saving. It is worth quoting the following section of the report in full, as it clarifies the current situation. It states that

“the evidence so far suggests that many households will be unable to maintain their current standard of living when they reach retirement. The advent of auto-enrolment has increased the number of workers saving for retirement, with more active savers now in defined contribution (DC) pension schemes rather than defined benefit (DB). This rise in the number of pension savers is a step in the right direction, but DC plans must continue to evolve in order for them to provide savers with an adequate pension.”

The report goes on to find that the median saving of DC scheme members could yield £3,000 a year as an annuity, which is not a lot of money.

More work needs to be done to improve the adequacy of returns on DC savings, including by looking in more depth at costs and charges, as we have tried to do throughout our consideration of the Bill. Nevertheless, the top-up provided from access to master trust saving through the auto-enrolment scheme is a valuable addition to state pension provision, so it is worth while to ensure that as many low-income groups as possible have access to master trust saving.

I will start with how master trust saving for low-income groups could be improved through the Bill. Taking carers first, while those who leave or reduce their hours of employment to care for loved ones are rightly supported through the social security system, it seems unjust that they will probably miss out on the fuller benefits enjoyed by those who are able to save more into occupational pensions as a result of being able to remain in employment, in spite of the fact that carers engage in valuable labour—work that would otherwise have to be picked up by the state. It is my strong belief that the Government should try to improve the retirement prospects of carers, and master trusts, which have been set up to service large numbers of low-income savers, may be an avenue worth exploring. We would include carers as part of a wider review of groups that are excluded from pension saving.

The same is true of the self-employed. I was personally heartened by the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Amber Valley. After more than a decade of expansion in that part of the labour market, self-employed people now make up 15% of the workforce. Vast numbers of them are at the very bottom end of the income scale, and there is much evidence to suggest that they are not saving as much as those in other sections of the workforce. Research by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed found that four in 10 self-employed people do not have a pension. The New Policy Institute found that the self-employed are not only less likely to participate in pension saving but tend to save less as a whole when they do.

Despite that worrying evidence, there are few obvious means by which the self-employed can begin to build up a savings pot in a master trust. That is just one way in which Britain’s entrepreneurs have been let down and ignored. There is no mechanism to manage the enrolment of self-employed people in master trust schemes. Of course, the fact that there is no employer means that, like informal carers, self-employed people’s contributions cannot currently be topped up. I do not believe that it is beyond the bounds of possibility for an expert review to look into that conundrum. The Labour party remains the party of working people, including the self-employed, and we are keen to explore how they might be encouraged to save into defined-contribution master trust schemes to ensure that they have the dignified and secure retirement that we believe everyone has the right to.

Perhaps moving closer to the existing system of saving into master trust schemes, there is also the urgent question of people with multiple jobs. Under the current system, those whose earnings exceed the earnings threshold but result from multiple jobs are unable to access auto-enrolment into a master trust scheme. It seems that the only logic preventing that group from accessing savings is the administrative barrier posed by their having more than one employer. In other words, there is no mechanism either to establish total earnings to trigger access to auto-enrolment, or to determine the sponsoring employer of a person working multiple jobs. Although that issue may seem overwhelming to the Government, we believe that it warrants further attention—especially given the way the labour market is changing, with as many as 3 million people estimated to be working multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

I turn finally to access to master trust savings for low-income savers. Under the auto-enrolment policy developed by the Labour party, working people would have been automatically enrolled into a master trust scheme once their earnings had crossed the trigger level of just over £5,000, the logic being that people would begin to save towards an occupational pension at the same earnings level at which they began to pay national insurance contributions. However, the coalition Government increased the earnings threshold to £10,000, denying millions of low earners the automatic right to save towards a relatively low-cost occupational pension through a master trust.

The last annual review of auto-enrolment into master trust savings concluded that the lower earnings threshold will be £5,876 and the trigger threshold will be frozen at £10,000. Although that freeze will bring a few more workers into the scheme through inflation, we do not believe that that is happening quickly enough. Given the generational crisis that is developing in our pensions system, more needs to be done to include low earners in savings provision and encourage retirement planning.

In conclusion, we recognise that the upcoming 2017 review of auto-enrolment presents the Government with an opportunity to take seriously the problem that certain groups are excluded from master trust savings. The new clause would guarantee that the Government engaged with these vital issues and those groups in the full and proper way. To be clear, we are not trying to force the Government to implement specific policy proposals after the Bill’s passage, although in the view of our colleagues on the Constitution Committee, that would not be out of step with much of the rest of the Bill. We merely wish to place a statutory requirement on the Government fully and properly to consider as part of their planned review what steps could be taken to widen participation for some of the most vulnerable groups.

I have one very specific question about the implementation of the review’s recommendations once it is completed. We talked about this earlier in relation to another matter. Will the Minister have powers under regulations to implement those recommendations, or will we have to wait for another pensions Bill, which is unlikely during this Parliament? The new clause would help to increase the security and dignity of retirement for groups on the lowest incomes. How can the Minister possibly refuse to guarantee that the review will address these important issues and groups?