Clause 1 - Collective money purchase benefits and schemes

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 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 the following:

Clauses 2 to 6 stand part.

That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.

Clauses 7 to 25 stand part.

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

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank colleagues for attending today’s debate. I hope to proceed with cross-party agreement on those matters that are relatively uncontested, so that we can make progress and then focus on and debate properly those matters that are genuinely contested.

I stand to introduce clause 1 and the associated clauses up to clause 25 and to speak in support of the new form of occupational pension that we are introducing, commonly called collective defined contributions. In CDC schemes, members and employers make fixed-rate contributions to the pension fund. At retirement, members receive their regular pension income paid out of the fund each year until death. The rate or amount of the pension is not guaranteed and will be adjusted annually depending on how much money is in the fund and the projected cost of providing benefits under the scheme. CDC schemes offer the security of an income in retirement, which we know many people value, without individuals having to purchase an annuity on retirement. However, CDC schemes do not require the employer to make additional financial contributions to the scheme if the scheme’s financial position weakens. CDCs have been introduced under a cross-party approach, with great support from all parts of the House. The pioneers of the scheme are the Communication Workers Union and the Royal Mail, which have proposed a way forward.

The Bill allows us to extend CDC provision to master trusts or non-connected multiple employers through further secondary legislation when appropriate, and we look forward to working with such employers in the industry on how such provision should operate and be regulated. It is a brave man who cites Tony Blair in aid of his proposals, but I genuinely believe that this is a third way in terms of pensions, as an alternative to defined-benefit and defined-contribution schemes. It is unquestionably something that huge numbers of people have sought to bring forward, so that we can address things in the main.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

The Minister talks about the third way. Will he also take a little time in his opening remarks to recognise that pensions policy is best if it is done cross-party? We are dealing with changes to the Pensions Act 2004, which was cross-party legislation that introduced opting in. Changes and tweaks to the system are far more likely to last across different Governments and across time if we have some form of cross-party consensus. It is not only a third way. The only way we will end up with a workable pensions scheme is by building in sustainability across Governments and across time. As a former Pensions Minister who put the auto-enrolment regulations on to the statute book prior to our loss of office in 2010, I am committed to cross-party working and I hope that the Minister is, too.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

This is an ideal opportunity to say that I do not think that members of the Committee will have any difficulty in catching my eye, but interventions should be brief and to the point.

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

I endorse that approach, Mr Stringer, but I also take the opportunity to welcome the cross-party approach to so much of pensions. I am conscious that two former Ministers of the Department for Work and Pensions are sitting on the Back Benches and that they will correct me and intervene regularly. I accept entirely that pensions policy works on a cross-party basis, whether it be automatic enrolment—which was introduced by the Labour Government through the Turner commission, brought forward by way of statute under the coalition, and expanded under this Conservative Government—or such successes as the Pension Protection Fund, which was one of the great successes of Blair’s Labour Administration, and the variety of reforms that we have introduced. There are some cross-party matters, such as the increase in the state pension age, that some parties do not necessarily wish to continue to own and embrace after they have left office, but such is the way of life.

As I tweeted yesterday, this Bill has, effectively, 98% cross-party agreement and, although there may be legitimate debates on how we progress, we have worked on that basis. Jack Dromey and I have worked together on a tremendous cross-party basis. My wife often comments that I text him way too much. The practical reality is that I have also engaged repeatedly with the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, who represents the Scottish National party. We have exchanged emails, trying to work out where we disagreed and where we agreed, and there is a great deal of common ground. Both SNP spokesmen made that clear on Second Reading, though there is legitimate debate regarding the best way forward on other matters. I look forward to those debates.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I concur with the Minister’s remarks on cross-party working. He said that CDC schemes, which we support, would become a third way, but can he clarify whether he sees CDC schemes as replacing good DB schemes? Clearly, we would not see them as an alternative but as a fall-back for when schemes run into trouble in other areas.

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

We will debate DB schemes, which I think have a great future. We have gone to great efforts to support the future of DB schemes. This is an alternative way forward that some organisations—Royal Mail is the classic example, but there are others who are looking at this—will welcome. Under no circumstances should it be implied or in any way taken that the Government will do anything other than support DB schemes on an ongoing basis.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Stringer. May I thank the Minister for the collegiate way in which he has undertaken debate during the progress of the Bill and, indeed, prior to that, on the issues and decisions we are making?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey for her comments on the importance of a continuing cross-party dialogue on the issue of pensions. I was involved in some of the Labour’s Government’s work on addressing pensions inequality for women and the Turner commission. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts for his contribution to the collegiate way in which we have all been working together and for raising important issues for debate.

I speak on behalf of the Opposition, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. We also speak on behalf of my hon. Friend Jack Dromey, who is unable to be with us this week. Before I begin, I want to thank the Committee Clerks, who are ever helpful, professional and a true credit to the House.

As the Minister well knows, we have always been clear that we support the Bill, but, as hon. Members can see, we have identified some ways in which we believe it could be made better. We will discuss those areas in detail as we progress.

I turn to the general provisions in parts 1 and 2 of the Bill, on collective money purchase schemes, which is the legislative term for collective defined contribution or CDC schemes. The provisions mark a welcome innovation. I join colleagues in congratulating the CWU and the Royal Mail on their groundbreaking agreement to pursue the creation of a CDC scheme. They have forged an exciting pathway to a better pension for around 141,500 Royal Mail employees. Members will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington was closely involved in that process.

CDC schemes offer many potential benefits, as the Select Committee on Work and Pensions concluded in a 2018 report:

“Through the pooling of risk between scheme members, CDC may well…provide more generous pensions on average than standard DC saving…To offer more good choices is entirely consistent with both pension freedoms and promoting retirement saving.”

There could hardly be a more important time to focus on reducing risks to people’s pension savings. As we have seen, the coronavirus crisis poses a serious and significant risk to pension funds. Sadly, many members of defined-contribution schemes have suffered pension reductions of around 8% to 10%, due to the financial market reaction to the pandemic. In many cases, that has led to individuals deferring their retirement.

In that context, it is massively encouraging that the modelling conducted by Willis Towers Watson shows that the Royal Mail CDC scheme would have provided better outcomes for savers through this crisis than traditional DC schemes. According to the modelling, even with the severe level of market shock experienced earlier this year, there would have been no effect on current pension levels for CDC schemes. Future pension increases would have been affected, but only by 0.25% a year. That is in stark contrast to the losses that I have outlined for DC pension savers and is to be welcomed in the light of the turbulent economic circumstances we face for the foreseeable future. It is welcome, too, that supporters of CDC schemes make a wide and varied coalition, including the CBI and the TUC.

In summary, Labour supports part 1 of the Bill and the move to create CDC schemes provided, of course, that they are not used as a means of downgrading good DB schemes, a point that has already been made.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I am very pleased to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Like others, I very warmly welcome this proposed legislation for CDC pensions, and congratulate Royal Mail, the CWU and everyone involved on the success of their joint efforts to achieve the statutory framework that is needed to deliver them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston referred to the previous Select Committee on Work and Pensions report on CDC schemes, published in July 2018. That report said that CDC schemes had the potential to “transform the pensions landscape”, and it also commended Royal Mail and the CWU on the “ground-breaking agreement” they reached at that time. It added:

“To offer more good choices is entirely consistent with both pension freedoms and promoting retirement saving.”

The Royal Society of Arts has long supported CDC provision, and I want to bring to bear on our discussion some of the points it has made in welcoming this proposed legislation. It points out, as my hon. Friend has just said, that CDC schemes are likely to provide a much higher income in retirement—at least 30% higher, it says—than the alternative of individual saving and then buying an annuity, and that that improvement is achieved by sharing longevity risk and targeting higher asset returns than an annuity provider. The RSA believes that the Bill provides a good framework for introducing CDC schemes, noting in particular that the regulator will act as a gatekeeper to ensure that only well-designed CDC schemes can open. It suggests that authorisation requirements for opening a CDC scheme and the process to verify continuing viability should not be unduly cumbersome, and that there should be a proper balance of prescription in scheme rules and trustee, actuarial and regulatory oversight.

Unlike DB schemes, a CDC scheme cannot go back to the employer and ask for more funding, so CDC pensions do need to vary if things prove better or worse than predicted. Those variations in other countries where CDC schemes are in place can generally be accommodated by raising pensions by more or less than inflation, but after the 2008 crisis the Dutch reduced their CDC pensions by 2% on average, and in one of the Dutch schemes the level of pensions being paid was reduced by 6%. Understandably, that caused a furore, so people in a CDC pension need to know what might have to be done depending on what happens in financial markets in the future.

Does the Minister agree that this places a premium on effective communications with members of CDC schemes? During stable times, CDC payments may seem pretty reliable, as had been the experience in the Netherlands, where they were uprated each year in the expected way. For many years, the Dutch system had experienced no problems with that, nor had the potential for reductions been clearly explained to pensioners, so when the reduction came—2% on average, 6% in one case—it caused a lot of anger, for understandable reasons.

My hon. Friend referred to the model put together by Willis Towers Watson, I think at the request of the RSA, to model how a CDC pension would respond to the drop in capital values over the first quarter of this year. As she said, that model showed that the Royal Mail scheme would have been pretty robust. The Bill will allow the Royal Mail proposal to proceed, and other private sector organisations to create similar arrangements, but it does not allow for unrelated companies to work together to create a single CDC pension plan. Since effective pensions require economies of scale, that in effect excludes smaller companies from the legislation’s provisions, and from the option of a CDC—at least for now.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington has said, it would be immensely beneficial if small companies in the care sector could come together to offer a sector-wide CDC pension scheme—something that no small company could undertake on their own. Obviously, all of us are thinking a lot at the moment about the wellbeing of people working in care occupations, often on low wages, and very often without an opportunity to save much for a pension.

Clause 47 gives the Government powers to allow multi-employer CDC schemes and/or providers to offer CDC master trusts, so that small employers can overcome this constraint. A Work and Pensions Committee report from two years ago recommended that legislation governing CDCs should accommodate mutual and multi-employer schemes, as well as stand-alone schemes such as the Royal Mail one. Will the Minister give us hope that the Government intend to take advantage of the power in clause 47, and say when they might do so and make this possibility a reality?

The Minister in the other place said:

“this new type of provision and the supporting regulatory regime need time to bed in before a decision is made on whether multiple employer, sector-specific or commercial CDC provision should be facilitated.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 January 2020; Vol. 801, c. 1352.]

We need to know how long the Minister thinks that bedding in will take. I hope he can reassure us that it will not be allowed to drag on too long, because there is an important opportunity here. We can all think of situations in which it would be valuable for that opportunity to be realised. Finally, will he confirm that the Government intend for the defined contribution pension freedoms, which are well established—they have been in place for five years—to be made available to CDC scheme members?

I welcome the legislation, and hope that the Minister can confirm to the Committee that it is the Government’s intention to continue to develop this provision, so that smaller employers, in particular, can take advantage of it.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 9:45 am, 3rd November 2020

Before I call Neil Gray, let me make it clear that we are not discussing clauses 27 and 47 now. I allowed what the right hon. Member for East Ham said to pass, because he referred to earlier clauses, too.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

It is a pleasure to take part in this Bill Committee with you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. Like the Labour spokesperson, I pay tribute to the Minister, and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, for the cross-party work that brought the Bill to this point. We welcome the Bill as it has arrived from the Lords, though we have concerns about some of the amendments put forward. It is an important piece of legislation, and the part that brings about CDC schemes has arrived in a good state, which is why there are so few amendments to these clauses. The Minister has obviously done a good job on the drafting from that point of view.

I thank the Clerks for their time and patience in working with me, my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon and our staff in putting forward our amendments and priorities. We greatly appreciate all their help and support.

Following on neatly from where the Chair of the Select Committee left off, we very much support the creation of CDC schemes. We pay tribute to Royal Mail and the CWU for the work that they have done with the Government to get the Bill to this stage. As I intimated in my intervention on the Minister, and as the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, also intimated, the CDC schemes cannot be seen as a panacea or the right solution for everybody. It is important—I think this will be a theme of our discussions—that people are given access to as much impartial information about their pensions as possible, giving them confidence to make informed decisions about their savings.

For the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman outlined, I wish to put on the record again that although the SNP feels that CDC schemes have major benefits—certainly for some scheme members in DC schemes—we would not wish them to be seen as a replacement for good DB schemes or for people to feel that they are necessary. I look forward to the rest of the debate, which I feel may well be rather more contentious than the issues that we are discussing at this early stage of the Committee.

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

I echo the support for the Clerks from this side of the Committee. We had a very helpful session yesterday, and they have been very helpful throughout. I will address the four or five points that have been raised.

On communications, I utterly endorse the point made by the Chair of the Select Committee. He will, I hope, appreciate that over the last three years, one of the major things that I have tried to drive forward in the Department is communications across the level. We are using simpler statements, by taking the 10 to 43-page pension statements that very few people read—putting them in a kitchen drawer and not necessarily taking them on board—and providing a simpler two-page statement and a written version. Our pensions dashboards create an amenable version of the online version, with great, ongoing communication.

On CDCs, I totally endorse the points that the right hon. Gentleman made: it is vital that we learn the lessons from the Netherlands, and that we ensure good communication. The possibility of fluctuations in benefits will be made clear and transparent in key member communications at points throughout their pension journey, including by providing details of fluctuation risks at the point of joining, by emphasising benefit changes in both active and deferred members’ annual benefit statements, and by making clear in retirement information packs that benefits can change during retirement.

Quite simply, that point was not made clear to members in the Dutch example. Some may not have taken it on board at the start, while others perhaps did not quite understand the situation as well as they would have had it been explained to them. We hope that we have learned that particular lesson and have very much taken that on board. I know that the two organisations that are looking at CDCs are very conscious of that and, to their great credit, have held multiple roadshows around the country, talking about this and engaging with people long before the legislation was introduced.

The reality of the situation for the CWU and Royal Mail was that their endorsement of the approach would not have been possible without member engagement from the very start. They have probably engaged more with a pension scheme than anyone has ever done before, prior even to the drafting of the legislation. They very much wanted that engagement to take place.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Clearly, the changes that the Bill would make allow for pioneering in the CDCs that Royal Mail and the CWU have introduced to be put into effect. Will the Minister say a little about how other organisations —smaller employers, perhaps—might try to get into the CDC space? Clearly, Royal Mail and the CWU are an unusual combination, both in the size of the industry and their buy-ins—very few employers are of the same size as the CWU, which represents its members, and Royal Mail, which wishes to offer this particular CDC.

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

I agree that large employers, such as Royal Mail, which employ nearly one out of every 200 full-time working employees in this country, will look at that and say it is a potential way forward.

Before I come to the hon. Lady’s point, I want to address DB briefly and make it clear that CDC is intended to offer a further pension-saving option for employers and their workers, should they wish to make use of it: it is for the employers and the workers to decide the type of benefit they wish to have via their occupational pension scheme. That has always been the right of the employer fundamentally, but also engaging with the employee. We specifically amended the subsisting rights provisions via clause 24 to prevent existing DB benefits in the scheme from being converted into CDC benefits. I hope that I have addressed in full the DB issue, which was also raised separately by the right hon. Member for East Ham.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I am grateful for the Minister’s reassurance on communications. Will good communications be a consideration for the regulator in determining whether a proposed CDC scheme should go ahead?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

To build on that, does the Minister see the engagement, which he has rightly described as one of the most extensive from an employer and an employee-representative organisation in terms of changes to pension provisions, as being the gold standard going forward, if an employer seeks to switch from a DC to a CDC scheme in the future? Is that the bar that needs to be met?

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

I am now straying into industrial relations and how best to manage a company to take someone’s employees with them in a complex negotiation about future pension rights. All I can say is that I have worked and sat down regularly with the leading individuals in the Communication Workers Union and the individuals who have been running Royal Mail—that has changed slightly as it has gone along. I have seen the way in which they have engaged with their workforce and had a proper conversation up and down the country in a series of roadshows. With a large unionised workforce in the modern era, that is the right way in any event. I would certainly endorse that approach. It is clear that the company and the employees have been able to work together—working with the union, working with representatives—and it seems to me that, while I would not say the phrase is “gold standard”, it is an advisable way to proceed and it is good company relations to have a proper dialogue and engagement with individual employees.

The short answer I gave to the Chair of the Select Committee was yes, but the longer answer is that there is a whole supervisory regime, which we will discuss later, under clause 27 and thereafter, which must be submitted to the regulator in order to qualify to be accepted as a CDC. The practical reality of that is that I cannot see a way in which the regulator endorses and allows a company to go down the route of a CDC without all aspects of that communication being considered. Clearly, there are secondary regulations that follow. It is not in the specifics of the Bill, as I understand it. I make the point, when I am answering questions, that I am doing this utterly blind, so it has to be from my memory because I cannot take any notes from anybody. That is the fun of a covid Committee, as the right hon. Member for East Ham will know from chairing a Select Committee.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Semaphore? [Laughter.]

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

The practical reality is that there is a supervisory regime that must be embraced as part of the application to the regulator to become a CDC. I believe that that will be comprehensively addressed and it is my intention that that should be so in the relationships that we have.

The right hon. Member for East Ham asked about clause 47 in ballpark terms and the speed and expedition. I take the point that we are not debating those matters but yes, I accept that we need to press ahead with that. I wish to do so. I have been working on the Bill for the best part of two and a half years. It has not been for lack of trying. We started it prior to the general election and had to pause and start again afterwards, so it is not for the lack of trying to progress it. Both Royal Mail and the CWU are very keen to expedite it.

One of the reasons that the Bill is this size is that the first 51 clauses are for Great Britain, while clauses 51 to 102, which are a mirror image, apply to Northern Ireland. This is not a company-specific proposal; we have made the Bill sufficiently wide so that other organisations—the obvious ones being master trusts—can come forward and be included. I totally take the point that there is great eagerness to have smaller, multi-employer schemes take part on an ongoing basis, to see how they progress.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 10:00 am, 3rd November 2020

Can the Minister raise our hopes that perhaps in the next 12 months or so, there might be regulations that allow multi-employer CDCs to be set up?

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Could the Minster be brief, as that moves us into a debate on clause 47, which comes later in the agenda?

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

The final question that I was asked was about extensions on DCs, and the answer to that is yes.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clauses 7 to 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.