Clause 103 - Grounds for issuing a section 38 contribution notice

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 3rd November 2020.

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

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 104 to 106 stand part.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to you, Mr Stringer, and to colleagues for the progress we have made in respect of collective defined contributions. We now turn to part three of the Bill, on regulatory powers. The powers are, in broad terms, agreed, as I understand it, subject to debate on clause 107. It is entirely right that we have set those out in defined benefit and regulator consultations over many years and in the preparations for White Papers and Green Papers, and that enhanced powers will be given to the regulator on an ongoing basis. I recommend the regulations to the Committee.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

We will not be making any further comments. We support the Minister on these clauses.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP Committee, Chair, Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP Committee

This part of the Bill gives new powers to the regulator, so it is worth recapping the problems that gave rise to the need for them. Most of the thinking here came from the joint work of the former Work and Pensions Committee—I pay tribute to my predecessor as its Chair, Frank Field—and the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, after the awful problems at two firms: BHS and Carillion.

BHS had two defined-benefit pension schemes. They were in a combined surplus of £43 million when Sir Philip Green bought the company in 2000. The surplus gradually declined and the schemes fell into a combined deficit in 2006, following the period when large dividends had been paid to members of the Green family. By the time of the sale of BHS in 2015, the value of the schemes’ assets was almost £350 million short of their liabilities. As the schemes fell into deficit, the BHS board repeatedly resisted requests from the scheme trustees for increased contributions.

In 2012-13, there were negotiations over a deficit recovery plan and they concluded with a 23-year recovery plan. At the time, eight years was the median rate for a recovery plan and 95% of comparable schemes had a recovery plan of less than 17 years. The plan we got in the case of BHS was for 23 years. The payments under that plan barely covered the interest on the scheme’s deficit and so the deficit continued to grow even while that plan was being followed.

The two Select Committees concluded that the Pensions Regulator had acted too slowly. Having received the 23-year plan in September 2013, it did not send the first information request to the trustees until January 2014. The Committee added, however, that the onus for resolving problems was on Sir Philip Green.

In the case of Carillion, it left a pension liability of around £2.6 billion. The 27,000 members of Carillion’s defined-benefit pension schemes will now be paid reduced pensions by the Pension Protection Fund—one of the biggest calls ever on that fund. I agree with what the Minister said earlier about the success of the fund, which was introduced by the previous Labour Government.

Richard Adams was Carillion’s finance director for ten years. He refused to make adequate contributions to pensions schemes, and the chair of trustees said that he seemed to consider them a “waste of money”. The scheme actuary, Edwin Topper from Mercer, said that Carillion’s

“primary objective was to minimise the cash payments to the schemes”.

The Committees heard that the Pensions Regulator threatened seven times to use a power that it had never used, concluding:

“These were empty threats; the Carillion directors knew it and got their way.”

The Committees added:

“The Government has recognised the regulatory weaknesses exposed by this and other corporate failures, but its responses have been cautious, largely technical, and characterised by seemingly endless consultation. It has lacked the decisiveness or bravery to pursue bold measures recommended by our select committees that could make a significant difference. That must change. That does not just mean giving the FRC and TPR greater powers. Chronically passive, they do not seek to influence corporate decision-making with the realistic threat of intervention. Action is part of their brief. They require cultural change as well.”

Since then, the Pensions Regulator has launched a new approach. It says that it will take a

“clearer, quicker and tougher approach to driving up standards in the pension sector.”

We must all hope that the new approach, facilitated by the new powers under discussion, will do the job.

More recently, the current Work and Pensions Select Committee has expressed its support for the lenient approach that the Pensions Regulator has taken during the pandemic to employers seeking to reduce deficit reduction payments for defined-benefit pension schemes. We warned, though, that

“following our predecessor Committees’ experience with BHS and Carillion, the Pensions Regulator must remain alert to the risk of unscrupulous employers not in financial difficulty seeking to take advantage.”

We recommended specifically:

“If an employer is making deficit reduction contributions at a lower rate because of the pandemic, no reasonable person would expect them simultaneously to be paying dividends to shareholders and bonuses to senior executives. We recognise that there may be a small number of exceptions to this, but we would expect them to be wholly exceptional. We urge the Pensions Regulator to keep a close eye on this area, and to raise the alarm if it detects abuse.”

When the Government respond to the report, I hope that the Pensions Regulator will accept that recommendation, and we must all hope that the entirely sensible changes being made by the Bill do the important job that history makes clear is needed.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey 11:00 am, 3rd November 2020

I support my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, who has crystallised some of the dangers in private sector schemes. I do not want to add to the excoriating verdict of his predecessor Committee in the two cases mentioned, except to say that this does have an effect on the willingness of individuals to save into pension schemes. Although people might not know the detail of this behaviour and the losses it has caused to retirement income, some out there in the ether will use the lack of effective protection that has resulted from the failure both of regulation and in pursuing effectively those who engage in this kind of larceny. Individuals who may otherwise be pension savers choose not to save into a pension and regard it as a bit of a mug’s game because their money is not properly protected. They know that there are scams and that a range of people out there—from the great killer sharks who loot pension schemes, to those who do dodgy things at the margins—are causing people who were saving into pension schemes, in good faith, to lose benefits in retirement.

How will the Minister drive the Pensions Regulator to be far more proactive and effective? Later, we will come to the Bill’s measures on scamming and the even worse end of bad behaviour, but that is for a future part of the Bill. I hope the Minister can reassure us that he will insist that the regulator transforms its passive attitude into a much more aggressive one that not only actively deters but drives this appalling behaviour out of the whole of the pension scene.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I utterly endorse the speech of the right hon. Member for East Ham. I did not disagree with a single word of it. I could wax lyrical about why the Government, with the support of the Work and Pensions Committee and the special joint inquiry it set up with the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to address BHS, have introduced this overdue legislation, which is linked to a much-enhanced regulator with a strong direction from Select Committees and the Government that there should be a much more robust approach. The new chief executive of the Pensions Regulator was appointed by the Secretary of State and me with a specific exhortation that they take a different approach.

The actions of Philip Green at BHS and the Carillion case, with which the right hon. Gentleman is extraordinarily familiar, scarred all Members of Parliament. No matter what our political party, we have all seen the impact that those cases have had on individual members of our communities. I take the point that the hon. Member for Wallasey made: these scandals involving organisations and companies that have not been sufficiently regulated, and for which the regulator has not, to be blunt, had the power, to intervene and take a different approach, have affected people’s perceptions of the sanctity and safety of their pension.

We have gone to great effort to ensure, on a cross-party basis and taking on board the various Select Committee recommendations, that we give the regulator enhanced powers. We will come to the significant reality of the criminal sanctions that clause 107 outlines. Without a shadow of a doubt, we are in the business of ensuring that callous crooks who put a pension scheme at risk are not able to function as they did in the past. I most definitely endorse every comment that was made.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 103 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 104 to 106 ordered to stand part of the Bill.