Enrolment in Master Trust scheme: duty on employers

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 9 February 2017.

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“Before an employer enrols in a Master Trust scheme they must—

(a) take reasonable steps to ensure themselves that the scheme is financially viable;

(b) ensure the scheme is on the list of authorised Master Trust schemes maintained by the Pensions Regulator (section 14); and

(c) take reasonable steps to ensure themselves that the scheme will meet the needs of their employees.”.—

This new clause would require employers to conduct basic checks before signing up to the Master Trust scheme.

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.

It is almost as if I am doing an aerobics class; I have already warmed up, even in this cold Committee Room.

New clause 7 would provide employers with a fiduciary duty and a duty of care to members to ensure that the master trust of their choice meets the needs of their staff. The auto-enrolment process in the UK rests on the employer making the choice of scheme for those purposes. The new clause would ensure that, before authorisation, the employer is duty-bound to ensure that the master trust is fit for purpose and has all the necessary information for that choice to have a sound footing.

We need to ensure that the employer has a defined duty to carry out due diligence when choosing a workplace pension. Otherwise, many employers—through expediency or otherwise—will continue to make choices that may not be in the best interests of the scheme’s beneficiaries.

The past 20 years has seen us lurch from one mis-selling scandal to another. Pension transfers, endowments, payment protection insurance and interest rate swaps have all been subject to class actions, and to massive retrospective penalties being imposed on those found wanting in due diligence.

In the US, the employer has a fiduciary responsibility to their staff and chooses their scheme in their best interests. That means that if employers do not take due care in the choice and governance of the plan that they set up for their staff, they are liable to civil prosecution. Employers in the US take fiduciary obligations seriously, not least because scheme members are now taking and winning class actions if they do not.

A class action can focus on the choice of scheme provider, failure to establish suitable investment options and failure to monitor how funds perform as the scheme progresses. Some advisers in the UK, such as Pension PlayPen, think that the information given to employers to choose a workplace pension is insufficient, and that there is little supervision of the due diligence process by regulators, which is in sharp contrast to what happens in America.

The other day, Pension PlayPen stated on its blog:

“The common law includes the concept of an employer’s duty of care to staff, not just for their health and safety but for their financial welfare. This duty of care forms part of a social contract, the implicit responsibilities held by individuals towards others within society. It is not a requirement that a duty of care be defined by law.

An additional worry is that employers do not see this as their choice. Too often we get answers from employers ‘we did what our accountants told us to’. It is as much in the interests of accountants to ensure the employer states why they have chosen their pension as it is the employer’s.”

So what happens when the duty of care and fiduciary obligations go wrong? The only option is the courts. According to a Financial Times article last November, there has been an “explosion” of class actions in the USA on the issue of financial detriment to scheme members. These suits have not yet gained much public attention, due to the reputation of the US legal system, but it is also partly because the legal action is fragmented and spread between different courts, and cases are often settled in private with binding confidentiality clauses. What is more, pensions have the unfortunate reputation of being rather dull, even though the sums involved dwarf those of the multibillion dollar settlements seen in banking since 2008.

However, the basis of the complaints are sound and echo a warning that we have been making about the lack of transparency and engagement for members of schemes. Members may have been charged excessively high fees, the most noticeable or important point being that the investment process may be used to extract wealth.

As in other financial suits, such as PPI suits, the cases claim that financial organisations have used opaque structures, so that transactions extract money that ought to go to members of schemes. In one case, JP Morgan has been sued by a participant for allegedly causing employees to pay millions of dollars in excessive fees, through a scheme motivated by “self-interest”. The plaintiff claims that JP Morgan, as well as various board and committee members, breached its fiduciary duties by, among other things, retaining proprietary mutual funds from the bank and affiliated companies for several years, despite the availability of nearly identical, lower-cost and better performing funds.

Not all of these cases are just related to charges in the investment chain; some are also about administrative processes. A website—401khelpcenter.com—highlights that members of Essentia Health in Minnesota filed a class action lawsuit against the sponsor, claiming that the organisation paid excessive fees to their record keepers.

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned many times the potential for class action, particularly in the US, on various issues. Does he not believe that having the word “reasonable” twice in the new clause that he has tabled actually becomes a licence for class action, rather than closing it down?

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

I certainly do not. I am not a lawyer, but I believe that the new clause is sufficient and does not open the way for such action. What I am trying to do is provide a protection for employers within the scheme, and therefore also for members.

The latest complaint was filed in January against Aon Hewitt Financial Advisors, accusing the company of breaching the Employee Retirement Income Security Act 1974, or ERISA. That is the fourth lawsuit to target the fee arrangement for services provided by a computer-based investment advice programme.

Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to move away from discussing court cases in his comments?

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

I am doing that now. We have a clear warning that if a company fails in its fiduciary obligation, litigation may be an option. We know from the FCA report that implicit costs are opaque and likely to be much higher than those that have been explicitly presented. We believe that it will not be long before legal teams from the US alert their operations in the UK of potential opportunities for litigation. I can see the adverts on TV now: “Problems with your pension fund? Have you been subject to high fees and transaction costs that you never knew were there?”

The most important “don’t” must be, “don’t assign a low priority to your employees’ auto-enrolment choices.” The big lesson of the litigation—albeit US litigation—is that employers must assume that they have that fiduciary duty, as do trustees, and that they always need to have auto-enrolment choices on their radar screens. It is a lesson once again that the lack of transparency in the governance process, the administration process, the investment process and the advice process will lead to the detriment of the member.

To ensure that we can help build citizens’ trust in the system, we must have transparency for employers and members. We must have the information in front of the employer choosing the scheme to protect them and their employees. I commend new clause 7 to the Committee.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution with the new clause, but I respectfully give him my opinion that he seems to be fundamentally misunderstanding the whole regulatory system of automatic enrolment. So long as an employer chooses a scheme that meets the criteria—we have been through all the criteria and the whole regulatory and legislative system is behind that—the scheme qualifies for AE. The employer —which may be a he, she or it, if it is incorporated—cannot just decide on any old scheme. There is a significant regulatory hurdle in the Bill.

The employers’ duty is met by scheme choice, because that is what auto-enrolment is. It is not like a defined-benefit type of scheme, where the employer has to ensure that the contributions are enough to be able to pay out what they are contracted to pay out in the scheme documentation. They have to make a reasonable decision based on the whole authorisation regime. I argue that asking for more would be inappropriate and burdensome for employers.

It may help the hon. Gentleman to see my point if he looked at the regulator’s website—he might have done so already—which has comprehensive guidance for employers. Under the new clause, a typical employer would be doing exactly what the hon. Gentleman says is inappropriate: they would basically be doing what their accountant or adviser tells them, because most employers, particularly the small ones, by definition do not have this kind of knowledge. They are not professionals in this area; there are there to run their own business.

I do not understand, whether from a personal or a Government perspective, how asking them to do meaningful checks after they have gone with an approved and regulated scheme would add anything to the process. It is well-meaning, but it is unnecessary and should not be part of the Bill. I sympathise with the intent. The hon. Gentleman is trying to protect members from people acting in a fraudulent way.

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

Perhaps the Minister can address this very simple question: is he satisfied that employers could not be subject to legal action against them if they end up making a bad choice on behalf of their employees?

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

As I have explained, their choice on auto-enrolment is restricted to choosing a regulated, authorised scheme. I am not a Government lawyer, or any other type of lawyer, although perhaps I should disclose to my chagrin that I did a law degree 40 years ago.

Photo of Julian Knight Julian Knight Conservative, Solihull

Is it not true that many of the auto-enrolment schemes are vanilla in their investment outlook? Many of them—or a high proportion—are based around direct savings accounts and passive investment funds. They are not the high-risk, high-octane investments that would perhaps need the approach in the new clause.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:15, 9 February 2017

I absolutely agree. In fact, such schemes are often criticised for precisely that reason. They are criticised for being too conservative—in the investment sense, not the political sense—and for missing out a lot of good possible investment decisions, and the thought of that being reviewed by every single employer. I mentioned NEST and its 230,000 employers. I cannot believe that it would be fair to place such a regulatory burden on them when they are choosing from an approved list. The whole purpose of the regulation is that the schemes are approved, proper and regulated.

I am trying to see where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. I hope that he can see where the Government and I are coming from, and why I am not of the view that the new clause would be appropriate. I respectfully invite him to withdraw it.

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

I accept the explanation that the Minister has provided about the employer making a choice from a regulated scheme and the protections included within that. If he is satisfied that employers will not face legal challenge as a result of the choices that they make within a regime where they must choose a scheme on behalf of their employees, and has placed that on record, I am content. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose.