Pensions Guidance and Advice — [Judith Cummins in the Chair]

Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall on 1st March 2022.

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[Relevant document: Fifth Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Protecting pension savers—five years on from the Pension Freedoms: Accessing pension savings, HC 237]

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 9:30 am, 1st March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered take-up of pensions guidance and advice.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank colleagues for turning up after we had a late night last night. We have picked a day when pensions are topical, as we have a tube strike over the very issue that we are talking about.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

It is not the Minister’s fault on this occasion.

I do not think the main topic that I am proposing today is one that divides us. I think we would all accept that the problem is that we have a hugely complex pension system. Most people do not really have any understanding of how it works or what their options are, and far too few end up receiving advice or guidance before taking difficult decisions, having probably saved for 30, 40 or more years. They get to the end point and, sadly, do not always understand what they are doing. The huge risk of that situation is that they make a terrible mistake that they could have avoided, which has a detrimental impact on their retirement and reduces their quality of life in their last few years. The real question is what we can do to improve that situation.

We are not here today to talk about the level of pension saving, which is a hugely important topic but one for a different day. We are talking about what we can do to help people who get to the end of their saving journey to get the outcome that they want—the best outcome that they can have with the money that they have. I am not here to criticise auto-enrolment, which has been a huge success. It has hugely improved the situation for many people in work and at least gives them something to worry about when they get to retirement, whereas that would not have been a problem a decade ago. Millions of people would not even have had a pension pot to be thinking about.

Equally, I am not here to criticise the pension freedoms reforms that took place almost exactly seven years ago, which have been a huge success and are hugely welcome. In its recent report, the Works and Pensions Committee accepted that they should stay in place. However, we have to accept that we have a contradiction between the two systems and that we have chosen a way to get people to save pensions by almost tricking them into it, so that they do not realise. They just get defaulted in and do not have to engage, although we wish they would. At the end of that, we now have a hugely complicated system with lots of choices that people are not prepared for, and we need to find a way to prepare them for that, either at some point in their saving journey or when they get to retirement.

This is a problem that is actually getting worse. Statistics show that fewer people than before have taken advice over the last years, and the problem is getting worse because we have more and more people reaching retirement who will not have any defined benefit pension that can provide the majority of their retirement income. In order to ensure their quality of life in retirement, more and more people will be relying on their defined contribution savings and on the decision they make when they hit the age of 50 and get the chance to take a lump sum. It looks like a hugely attractive way to solve their present financial woes, but they do not realise that it makes their future woes a lot worse, having lost a quarter of what they had, which probably was not enough in the first place.

During the pandemic, a lot more working people over a certain age have now decided that they actually quite like being furloughed and have wondered whether they can eke out their retirement savings over a longer period by using the lump sum and not going back to work. It may be a terribly bad decision that they are making. I think the Government are now waking up to the fact that we have lost hundreds of thousands of people from the workforce who could come back but who would quite like not to do so. I am sure we would all like to be able to afford to retire early, but not if that gives us huge financial problems in later life.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the importance of pension savings and for his very serious approach to this issue. Does he agree that there is a contradiction here with what the Prime Minister has said about the growth in employment? He may have been somewhat mistaken and inadvertently given a misleading impression that the number of staff on payrolls has increased, but the overall size of the workforce has dropped, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

Yes, I think that is right: employment has grown, but participation has reduced. I have spent many years arguing about whether people are in fake self-employment—not really self-employed but being made to be, or pretending to be, because their employers are being unscrupulous or trying to get a tax advantage. Shifting people who were not really self-employed into thinking that they are employed is quite a good outcome—it makes the data more reasonable. The hon. Gentleman is right: we have lost hundreds of thousands of people who could still be working. When there is a workforce shortage, any measure that could get people from those cohorts back into work would probably be good for the majority of them and for the economy as a whole.

To return to today’s topic, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs data tells us that £45 billion was taken from pension pots in the first six years of the pension freedoms policy. Some 3.7 million defined-contribution pensions were accessed in that period, and over 2 million of those pots were cashed in full. This is not a problem for the future when defined-benefit pensions start to run off. It is a situation we have seen over the first five years of pension freedoms. It is happening now. Hundreds of thousands of people are accessing their pension pots without knowing what they are really trying to do.

It is worth quickly noting that we still have a problem with the data. The data that we have shows pots being accessed, not pots being accessed by individuals. We do not know whether the data shows one individual accessing 15 different pension pots from 15 different jobs, or 15 different individuals accessing one pension pot each. If we are to have a proper understanding of the situation, we need better data, so that we know what people are doing and what outcomes they are facing. We raised that as a Select Committee on multiple occasions, but we still cannot seem to get that data to be gathered.

The reason for asking for this debate—and what I would quite like the Minister to recognise when he wraps up—is that we have a large problem here. I am sure that the Minister does recognise that; he has said so on many occasions. I would also like the Minister to set out a direction of travel for the regulators and industry. We know that the take-up of pension advice and guidance is far too low—I will come on to the data in a little while. The Minister has made some welcome steps, which will come into force in a few months’ time, but even those steps will not fix the problem or take us to anything like the level that we need. I know that we do not like targets or benchmarks, but perhaps the Government could set an aspiration, an indication of what good practice is, or what the level should be. We need to set an aspiration for the regulators as to what the level of take-up of advice and guidance should be, and we need a plan for how we get there. I will talk through a few ideas about how we could bridge that gap.

If Parliament does not set the regulators a target, benchmark or aspiration—call it what you will—they will flounder, flap around and go round in circles. We need to be clear: “Here is where you need to get to, and here is how long you have to get there; if you do not get there, we will have to take some different measures of our own.” We had a problem during the debate on the Pension Schemes Bill last year or the year before. Amendments were tabled that called for various solutions, and the fact that they were not adopted means that people think that Parliament does not actually want them, whereas that is not how parliamentary debates work. We move amendments to float ideas, and we debate them. The fact that they are not voted on does not mean that we did not want them; it just means that we think that there may be other ways to achieve them. I hope that we can send a strong message today.

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

I did warn my hon. Friend that I would quote back to him his exact words from debate on the Pension Schemes Bill. His speech on Second Reading genuinely struck me, and to try to beef up the process I revised the specific guidance largely on the back of what he and the Chair of the Select Committee, Stephen Timms, said. My hon. Friend said:

“I personally would prefer a default guidance appointment, with someone having to sign in blood if they really did not want this free, excellent quality guidance before they could access their money.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 69.]

With respect, that is exactly what the stronger nudge is. We have taken on board the exact comments he made on Second Reading of the Pension Schemes Bill.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I am grateful to the Minister. He did say that he wanted the take-up of pension guidance to be the norm. Even with his changes, which I welcome, the take-up of Pension Wise will increase from a totally inadequate 14% to a really quite unacceptable 22%. I do not know how he defines a norm. I am not sure if there is a written definition of a norm, but I have a feeling that less than a quarter does not count as a norm. In that speech, which I stand by, I said that before they access their pension pot, I want the clear majority of people who have any level of pension savings to have taken guidance or advice.

However, I do not agree that such advice should be mandatory. We cannot put a gun to people’s heads and say, “You cannot have your money unless you sit through this. If you refuse to do it, no matter how long it takes, we’re not giving you your money.” Clearly, we cannot do that, but we can get pretty close to that situation. We need to find processes, techniques and measures that get that percentage up to somewhere much nearer the norm, so that people are not suffering the harm of doing this without understanding the whole landscape of what they are trying to do.

My big concern is not necessarily that people cannot understand the subject, although it is complicated, but that people do not know that there are all manner of uncertainties out there that they have not thought about. It is the “unknown unknowns” that are the problem here.

The beauty of a pension guidance appointment is that it gives people the chance to understand what they do not know, and then gives them the chance to go and find out what they do want to know so that they can make an informed decision. I am not suggesting that we can fix every problem of engagement through an hour or an hour and a half’s pension guidance appointment, but it would give people the tools to get the best possible outcome in their situation.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Further to his point, the need for clear and impartial guidance becomes even more important given the current levels of fraud. We are seeing people defrauded from their pensions and given very poor advice, which means they lose out on their savings, so having clear and impartial advice becomes even more important.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is a sad fact that a small proportion of people, but all too many individuals, have not just made a decision that is not optimal but been tricked into something that has cost them the whole or nearly the whole of what they have saved during their working life, because they did not understand that what they were being promised by the snake oil salesman—the conman—was utterly unachievable.

With some kind of briefing or guidance, they would have had a chance to realise that such an outcome was not possible, that there was no way they would get that kind of return and that such an investment strategy was not remotely sensible. We could have saved them in that situation. We must try to get as many people as possible to take up this service, so that we can put such protections in place and people will have a chance to know that such schemes are not real.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I agree completely with what the hon. Gentleman says. I know I have probably used words that he maybe would not, but does he share my concern about the Minister’s intervention? The Minister effectively said, “I listened to the hon. Member’s speech. We are doing a stronger nudge—job done; nothing to worry about.” Is that not complacent?

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I would not use that word. It is a little unfair on the Minister, who has put in place some measures that have not yet come into force, to say that he is being complacent. I urge the Government to see those measures as part of the set of solutions we need.

The Government’s role is to set the aspiration for the level of take-up that we need, so we can then judge the success of their policies. It is a slightly strange situation and we had some rather baffling evidence sessions with the regulators during the recent Work and Pensions Committee inquiry. Everybody accepts that the take-up is not high enough and we should do more, but when asked, “What ought take-up to be?” they say that they do not know and do not have a number. So we know that what we have now is not good enough, but we do not know what is good enough, and therefore we cannot tell when we are going to get to good enough.

It is a slightly strange way of running a strategy, an organisation or a service to not know what is good and what you are aiming for, but to start trying to aim for it in the hope that you might get there by luck. We need a direction of travel, and someone to say, “We think the right target is 60%.” That is the number we had in our Select Committee finding and it seems quite reasonable. We are not asking for 100%, which would not be practical or useful, but we could set that kind of guide.

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

My hon. Friend is talking about guidance on its own, but 55% of pots over £10,000 are accessed after taking guidance or advice, and above £100,000 the figure is 74%. Surely on those two, the stats are better, with respect, than he is purporting to suggest, and we must look at this in the context of some people taking advice as well.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

Absolutely. We hope that more people will take advice and have a properly informed situation, rather than just relying on guidance, and I accept that we want to look at those two things in aggregate. The problem on the numbers the Minister is quoting is that there is still a huge gap in respect of the, I think, 45% of people who have not had advice or guidance. My fear is that they are the people about whom we are most concerned: those with some retirement savings—not a huge amount, although not a very small amount—for whom, if they do not make the right decision and understand all the parameters they are dealing with, there could be a material impact on their retirement.

Should we worry so much about those with a £1 million pension pot? They are probably the ones who are taking advice in the first place. For people who have really a very small amount, there is probably not much that they will be able to do differently after they have had the guidance than take it as a lump sum. Are we to think it is okay that we have 45% of people who in the scheme of things have a relatively small amount and who could, by getting this wrong, materially harm their retirement, and that we do not have a plan for how to close that gap? I am not sure that that is a position I would want to take.

This shows that we have a problem here, and we need to find ways to try to fix it. The Minister is getting defensive, but I hope that when he speaks later he will accept that we need to close that gap and that the measures that will come into force in a few months will not be sufficient to close it. We need to look at different ways—

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

I am not being defensive; it is just that I do not think that we can look at this matter solely in the context of stronger nudge. We have to look at it in the context of, obviously, the work done with the pension schemes legislation, with the dashboard coming next year; the accumulation pathway, with collective defined contributions coming in; the awareness campaigns, which we are beginning to boost; simpler statements and so much more. Stronger nudge is just one element of about six to eight measures that we are taking to address the problem that my hon. Friend raises, and I accept that he is right to raise it.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I am grateful to the Minister. There is a danger, or there will be if we are not careful, of us starting to disagree on the fundamentals, whereas I thought we had a broad consensus of agreement that we needed to find a way to go further on the issue. Sir Hector Sants chairs the Money and Pensions Service, whose job it is to deliver financial advice and support to people around the country, and even he agrees. Sir Hector said that

“the vast majority of people, left to their own devices, will probably make a poor decision.”

The problem we have is that a large number of people—unless we are able to convince them to take some kind of guidance or input—are at risk of making a very poor decision that they will not be able to reverse. This is not like taking out the wrong mortgage, which people can change after two years. If people take out the wrong pension, they are stuck with it for the rest of their life. It is not fixable if someone has bought the wrong product.

I accept that all manner of other moving fields around the pension situation all have to come together, but if the Minister was saying—I am sure he was not—that the combination of a slightly-easier-to-read statement that gets sent out once a year, and which might or might not get sent out at the same point and that has some advantages, and the creation of a dashboard, which we hope people will engage with and look at regularly, will fix the fundamental problem of our having a pensions system that is hugely complicated and that people do not engage with or understand, even though they will have to make a difficult decision at some point, I am not that optimistic that we will get such a level of engagement through people’s saving journey that they will not need some input before they make their decision.

When we introduced these freedoms—I was on the Select Committee seven or eight years ago—we said yes to providing those freedoms, but the big ask was, “Are we going to help people on that journey?” I am perhaps a little disappointed that the solution that the then Government came up with was the Pension Wise service. At that point, the Government and the regulators expected huge take-up, and we were worried about the service being swamped and unable to cope, but we have found that Pension Wise has exceeded all expectations—except one. The feedback from people who use the scheme is hugely positive, as is its impact on their understanding of the pension landscape and on the decisions they go on to make. The one expectation it has not met has to do with take-up, which is nothing like what it was. In evidence sessions on pension schemes, people were saying that we might get 75% take-up, but we are stuck in the low teens, and the figure has been falling in recent years.

It is slightly incongruous: we introduced a policy of pension freedoms, recognised at the time that the situation would be difficult for people, and put in place a new guidance system to help them. We thought there would be huge take-up, and said that its use should be the norm. A few years on, the position has got worse, and we have more people retiring with only DC pensions—people who need this input. We have this huge gap in take-up, but think that is probably okay, because there are a few things online that people can find. That is a challenge. We need a sense of urgency and direction, so that we can hold the regulators to account for achievement.

I am grateful to all who helped me prepare for this debate and sent me useful briefings, particularly the House of Commons Chamber Engagement Team, which conducted an online survey of people’s lived experience. That chimed with what we see in our constituency casework and in evidence to the Select Committees. It is clear that people do not understand the situation and do not feel well informed during their saving journey, and then have problems over time.

One quote is from Charlotte:

“Guidance and advice is not provided in my workplace, unless you are almost at retirement age, which is way too late.”

Carole said:

“I have tried researching the information online but I find it very confusing.”

Anne, a constituent of mine, said:

“The Government should arrange pension roadshows to assist people with enquiries etc. Employers should hold pension surgeries and ensure guidance is available. There isn’t enough signposting and guidance in place.”

The evidence is pretty clear: there is a gap, and we need to fix that. What are the solutions? The Minister dragged me into talking about solutions earlier than I had planned; I was articulating the problem. Data on the size of the problem shows that HMRC received about £2 billion more than forecast in the early years of pension freedom as a result of people accessing their pensions. That is likely because people took the whole of their pension, as they now can, and became higher-rate taxpayers for the only time in their working life. That was a hugely foolish decision, giving the taxman 20% of their pension. That would not have happened if the pension had been taken out in a smooth way over years.

I am sure the Government do not want that benefit, but that £2 billion was a third more than was forecast. That suggests that something has gone wrong, and that people have not been making the wisest decisions. A Nobel- prize-winning economist has described working out what to do with a pension as

“the nastiest, hardest problem in finance”.

Nobody knows how long they will live, and many people assume they will live fewer years than they do, and end up with the horrible risk of running out of money.

I will move on to the argument the Minister was keen for us to have about how to improve the take-up of Pension Wise advice, and issuing appointments automatically or by default. I am asking for what the Select Committee asked for in its recent report: for the regulator to undertake trials on how to improve the take-up of pension guidance. We are not asking for tens of hundreds and thousands more appointments, and huge costs. We accept that, even with a stronger nudge, we will not get the figure high enough. We could give people an even stronger nudge and look at some of the options. Those include writing to people when they turn 50 or are approaching state pension age to say, “We have made you an appointment with Pension Wise at half-past three on such a date,” and giving them the chance to change the appointment. Or we could go back one step and say, “In six months’ time, you’ll hit state pension age. Before you can access your pension, you need a Pension Wise appointment. Here is the booking number.” There could be other combinations; for example, the pension provider could make planned appointments.

Whatever the trials and the options we look at, we are trying to work out whether giving people an appointment —a real kick—increases take-up, especially in the hard-to-reach groups that are not using the guidance service. I would have thought there were enough good-quality pension schemes out there that are keen to help their members and that would be willing to participate in a trial with the regulator, who could agree the rules and set the parameters. We could do that for a few thousand people on a representative basis.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

The Treasury Committee got a letter on 16 February from the Financial Conduct Authority about the trials and how they have been designed. I wonder if the hon. Member shares my disappointment that it said,

“We are still in a design phase and have not yet determined all these details. Some of the answers to your questions will depend on further work.”

It does not feel as though there is a sense of urgency about the issue.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I agree. We had the regulator before the Select Committee, and initially she was quite resistant to do anything beyond giving the stronger nudge that the Minister had provided for, because she did not think Parliament wanted that. We should send the message loud and clear that we want to trial these things and see if they result in higher take-up. None of us would want people at Pension Wise to be sitting around at the end of the phone, waiting for calls, which are not coming in huge numbers, if they were providing something that people really do not want; but people who take these appointments value them, and find them useful. There are all manner of ways that call centres around the country handle unpredictable volume. They know what the take-up will be, and then plan everything with their staff; they move calls around so that they can handle surges in volume, or manage dips in take-up.

I am not saying to the Minister, “Bring in legislation to require a pension guidance appointment for every single saver approaching retirement. Resource Pension Wise to provide that that. Hey, if no-one turns up, it’s just money being lost.” But let us trial things that go beyond what he has already agreed to do, so that we get the take-up we all think we need. If people are not turning up, we will accept that it does not work. If people are turning up totally unengaged, and are there just because they think they have to be and have not bothered to do any research on their own finances, and it is a completely pointless conversation, we will accept that the automatic appointment system does not work. However, if we find, as I suspect we will, that it boosts take-up among the harder-to-reach people, let us roll it out more widely, because we can demonstrate the value of it. If we do not trial any of these things, we will be sitting here in a few years’ time with more people having suffered detriment, and we will be scrabbling around for ideas. We will not have the evidence, because we will not have trialled anything. That is all I am asking the Minister to do.

Another idea we have for improving the outcome is moving the line when it comes to what is advice and guidance, and giving better guidance to the pension schemes about what they can tell their members—what common-sense information they can give people about their options. I am slightly cautious on the latter point, because one of the arguments in favour of pension freedoms, and one of the big problems with the annuity market, was that savers were just defaulting into buying the annuity from their incumbent pension provider, and were not shopping around and understanding their position. They could have got a far better outcome if they bought an ill health annuity, or if they went to a different provider. I do not think we can say that the solution to this problem is for an incumbent pension scheme to tell members what four default pathways they have, and to see which one they want to pick.

Some kind of independent, impartial input should be available to savers, so that they know they can shop around and look elsewhere. The place that is the main contact with the saver should be able to give them useful information, and should be required to give them more useful information than they already do. We should find a way for the regulators to move the line, change the guidance or give some examples to schemes, or give schemes reassurance that they are not breaking the financial advice regulatory rules when giving people what is basically common-sense advice. That would be hugely helpful. If we can, we should reform the system—that is the best way I can put it—so that people do not have to incur the full cost of regulatory advice, which is usually thousands of pounds, and so that we can give people more tailored, individualised guidance on the best option for them. That would be a huge advantage.

It is clear that simple Pension Wise guidance is not the journey’s end that people want. They want something individualised. We need to find a way of making that easier and cheaper for them to get, while keeping it safe; we do not want people being led into buying a product by what they thought was impartial guidance. Making those improvements could give us a dramatic improvement in the situation.

I have spoken for longer than I was expecting to, so I will conclude my remarks by reiterating that I do not think that this issue divides us. We all recognise that we have a problem. We welcome the measures the Government have taken to improve the situation, but I urge the Minister to accept that he needs to go further. We need the regulators to take more action. I urge them to take up the relatively straightforward and low-cost trial options that are out there, so that we can see if we can get a better outcome, and can get more people using a high-quality, free, low-risk guidance service. There is literally no downside to people using it; it is a crying shame that it is not used more. That is all we want to see from this debate.

[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle 10:01 am, 1st March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I will not repeat the excellent points made by Nigel Mills, but I echo many of them. The need for good pensions advice is real and pressing. Nobody jumps out of bed in the morning wanting to think about their pension—apart from everyone here, of course, who did that this morning. It is not top on their list of priorities, but it really matters.

Pensions advice matters more as we see the impact of the increased cost of living. More pensioners are falling into poverty and having to choose between heating and eating. The need for an adequate pension is even more pressing. My interest in this debate comes primarily from my role on the Treasury Committee, where I have taken a particular interest in this subject. In my intervention on the hon. Member for Amber Valley, I referred to the letter from the Financial Conduct Authority to the Chair of the Select Committee of 16 February about what a stronger nudge could be, and about trials to improve take-up of impartial pensions advice. My only criticism was the sense of a lack of urgency. There was a lot of, “Well, we are still in the design phase,” “We could try this,” and “We could try that.” There was nothing concrete.

One point that I would love the Minister to take away is that we need to push the FCA and say, “We want you to firm this up. What exactly will you do? When will these trials take place? When will you have a deadline for designing them?” It feels as though they are using warm words but not taking concrete action.

Obviously, pension decisions are complex, even for the well-informed saver. I have heard that many of us will end up with four or five pensions before we reach retirement, and people are having to try to work out the best advice when they are dealing with these many different pension pots. Gone are the days when people stayed in one career all their life and then retired. This added complexity really matters. I did a Facebook Live session on the subject and, believe it or not, members of the public did engage and were quite interested in the issue. They were particularly interested in how they find out where their missing pension pots were. That was another question that came up, which shows that people do not truly understand this subject.

As I mentioned in my intervention, the lack of high-quality advice leads to people being defrauded, which is heartbreaking. They are not just receiving poor pensions advice; they are being tricked and defrauded. That makes getting impartial advice even more important. We can say to people, “Don’t listen to these charlatans who are trying to steal your pensions. Go to this impartial advice service.” I truly do not think many people know that it is there. The feedback from people who use it is that it is a very positive service that gives really good advice. It makes people feel more informed about how to make their decisions. The difficulty, of course, is that if someone does not know the service is there, they will not go to it for advice, and then they are much more vulnerable to making poor decisions.

I want to mention issues that I will talk a lot about in future: the poverty premium and the hidden costs of poverty, and financial inclusion. It is relevant to mention them in this debate on workplace pensions because the Financial Inclusion Commission estimated in January last year that around 8.5 million workers were excluded from automatic enrolment in workplace pensions because they worked in the gig economy, were part time, and earned too little. Those workers tend to rent their homes,

“and will have little in the way of savings or other assets to draw on in retirement…In addition, employees who are eligible for automatic enrolment may not engage because they…don’t feel they can afford to make contributions out of their income”.

That is another of my concerns. I am hearing from residents who are choosing to opt out of pension contributions because of the cost of living. They do not feel they can afford things day to day, so they do not want to continue making pension contributions, and that is a huge worry that brings to the forefront the fact that everybody needs advice when making such decisions.

Nurses tell me that they are opting out of their pensions. I have tried desperately to convince them that the NHS pension is great, and have asked them to please stay in it, but people are deciding to opt out right now. Partly, they do not fully understand the consequences of the decisions that they are making today. That is why we need to ensure that there is excellent advice. I see that my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, is here, so I will not go into the detail of the Committee’s recommendations.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

It is good to see you in your place, Ms Bardell. My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about the very real difficulties facing so many families. Does she agree that she is, in part, referring to the wider cost of living crisis and its worrying knock-on effects on many, many families? They feel forced to make these terrible decisions because they are struggling to get to the end of the week as a result of rising heating and fuel bills.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The message that we would like to get to those who are making savings is: “Do not do it by not contributing to a pension, because you will need that money in future.” That is why we need important, impartial advice.

I am not a pensions specialist. I am just somebody with a keen interest in the subject because I see what happens to too many people when they go into retirement without the pensions that they need, and I see what happens when people are given poor advice and are defrauded. People just do not understand. They choose to take the lump sum today, not realising it pushes them into a higher tax bracket, and not realising the consequences for their future income. They just do not fully understand all the decisions. I truly believe that if we give people better advice, they will make decisions that mean we will, hopefully, have fewer people in poverty in future.

As I said, I was disappointed by what the FCA said in evidence to the Treasury Committee. We need the firm and clear message from the Government that they will get on with the trials. They should not spend any more time messing around with them. That is a priority; it would help get the situation moving more quickly.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

Order. I want wind-up speeches to start no later than 10.30 am. I will not impose a time limit, but I ask Members to be mindful of that. I call Gareth Davies.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford 10:09 am, 1st March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nigel Mills on securing this debate. I was not going to speak today, but felt compelled to do so because I was so impressed that there was yet another debate in this House on the pension fund industry. It is a fantastic thing. Since leaving the fund management industry in 2019 to start this new job, I have been struck by how infrequently we discuss pensions and savings, yet it is so important to all the things that we care about across the House.

We should not forget that Britain is a global leader in pension fund investing. We are one of the largest pension fund markets in the world, with £3 trillion under investment. Some £9.9 trillion is invested through the City of London and fund managers like my old shop. I can tell all Members present that the industry is full of some fantastic advisers and investors, and some of the brightest and best minds in the world.

However, we clearly have some issues that we need to tackle. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley highlighted many of them—maybe too many for the Minister’s liking. In my region, the east midlands, 69% of people who are investing in a pension do not receive advice, so there is a problem. I want to talk for a couple of minutes on how we can tackle the root causes, because we do not have an adequate culture of savings in this country, and I believe that starts from the very beginning of people’s working lives. I will offer a few suggestions as to how the Minister could address the problem in future Bills.

First, let me say that the power of our pension market is astronomical, tackling the things that we all care about. Whether it is levelling up our communities in Leeds, Hull or Grantham, or building infrastructure, our pension funds have the power and capital to do it. If we want to tackle climate change, unlocking pension assets to invest in renewable energy is vital. We can also do more to help younger people get on the housing ladder. The New Zealand Government introduced KiwiSaver, which allows young people to dip into their pension pot to put down a deposit to buy a first home, and there is more that we can do to unlock pension assets and tackle the things that we all care about.

However, the reality is that 12 million people in this country are under-saving, putting at risk their safety and security in older age. What can we do about that? First, we need to get people saving at an earlier age. We can do that by building on the success of auto-enrolment, which has seen 10 million additional people saving into a pension fund. I do not think they are being tricked; I think it is raising awareness of the importance of saving. That has of course been a cross-party effort. Auto-enrolment was introduced under a Labour Government in 2008 and brought forward by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition in 2012. It is an example of what we can do when we work together. Let us expand auto-enrolment to 18 to 22-year-olds and start them saving earlier. Of course, it is that age group of people who will benefit most from the compounding benefits of saving.

I am sympathetic to the Social Market Foundation report on this very subject of advice on the use of technology. We can use technology and encourage fintech entrepreneurs to develop technology to enable people to view their pension pots and investments a lot more clearly. We should get behind the efforts of the Minister and the Government to give a stronger nudge towards pension guidance, which will be much more important than Members have said in the debate so far.

I am struck by the number of job adverts in this country that do not mention pension contributions, even though they can contribute about a third of total take-home income. When a job advert goes out, often it states the salary but not the contribution to a pension, which is bonkers. If we could change that somehow, it would encourage people to be much more mindful of how the jobs they are taking can contribute to their retirement.

Finally, there are things that we can do to make pension saving much more practical in meeting young people’s challenges. The No. 1 challenge for a lot of people in Grantham and Stamford, which I represent, is buying a house, and the Minister could look at that.

I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley for securing the debate, and I am grateful to the House for letting me speak.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 10:14 am, 1st March 2022

I start by congratulating Nigel Mills on securing the debate and on his opening speech.

There was a serious flaw in implementing the pension freedoms. They were announced by George Osborne in his Budget speech in 2014 and implemented the following year. He said in his announcement that

“no one will have to buy an annuity. We are going to introduce a new guarantee, enforced by law, that everyone who retires on these defined contribution schemes will be offered free, impartial, face-to-face advice on how to get the most from the choices they will now have.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 793.]

It was a very clear recognition of the risks involved in people having much more latitude over their pension savings—often the largest sum of money they will ever have access to—and that the Government needed to ensure that everyone had guidance to help them make sound decisions. However, that guarantee has never materialised, and the hon. Member for Amber Valley was absolutely right to say that hundreds of thousands are accessing their pension pots without understanding what they are trying to do.

We do have the Pension Wise service, which is excellent. It is free and impartial, as George Osborne promised, and as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, it gets very good ratings from those who use it—the problem is that very few people do. As my hon. Friend Emma Hardy rightly said—I apologise to her for being absent for some of her speech—one of the reasons why Pension Wise is important is so that people can avoid being scammed. In June 2015, I received from the Treasury the answer to parliamentary written question 2227, which said that

“Pension Wise was launched to help people understand their options when taking advantage of the pension freedoms, including how to spot and avoid scams.”

Over the past seven years, there has been a very big phenomenon of pension scams that it is in everybody’s interest to prevent. So the default should be that people get a Pension Wise appointment.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Is the Chair of the Select Committee as concerned as I am that, despite Pension Wise being an excellent service, the number of Pension Wise appointments is actually falling? There is real concern here, which is why many of us want to see auto-appointments.

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

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

The importance of guaranteeing guidance was stressed repeatedly, not just in George Osborne’s announcement but by the Government in the couple of years afterwards. The Treasury’s public financial guidance review, published for consultation in March 2016, said:

“Guidance is vital to ensure that individuals are fully aware of their options before they make a decision on what to do with their retirement savings”.

Harriett Baldwin, who was then Economic Secretary, said in April 2016 that the Government were introducing

“a requirement that, in effect, ensures that consumers with a high-value annuity receive appropriate financial advice before making the decision to sell their annuity”.—[Official Report, 19 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 876.]

In April 2018, her successor—the current Economic Secretary—John Glen, said that before proceeding with an access or transfer application,

“subject to any exceptions, schemes must ensure that individuals have either received Pension Wise guidance or have opted out.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 831.]

That commitment, which the Minister appeared to believe he was delivering four years ago, has never been delivered.

The Treasury has very good reason to be concerned that people should make sound decisions in this area, but so does the Minister’s Department. Baroness Buscombe, when she was a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, said in May 2018 that

“We all want people to make more informed decisions and to make it the norm to use Pension Wise before accessing their pension.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 May 2018; Vol. 790, c. 1995.]

Let me quote back to the Minister what he said in a debate on the Pension Schemes Act 2021, that Pension Wise should become the norm. He has since distanced himself a bit from that view, but he did express it: on Third Reading, I said that I was sorry he had not followed Baroness Buscombe and expressed the view that Pension Wise should become the norm, and he intervened on me to correct me. He said:

“I do—I said so.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 136.]

I responded to his intervention by welcoming the apparently universal agreement that taking up Pension Wise guidance should be the norm. Everyone agreed, but in October 2020, the Department published the “Stronger Nudge to pensions guidance” statement of policy intent, which said that the new nudges that would be introduced would increase take-up from one in 33 to one in nine. The most recent figures quoted by the Social Market Foundation last week suggest that take-up now stands at about one in seven.

As the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, the expectations at the start were way higher than that. Michelle Cracknell, the then head of the Pensions Advisory Service, which was subsequently absorbed into the Money and Pensions Service, said in evidence in October 2014 that

“ambition is that the take-up rate will be very high, with over 75% of people taking the guidance”,

but that it might only be 25% to start with. In fact, it has never got anywhere near 25%, let alone 75%.

The Committee’s concern about Pension Wise take-up is long-standing and goes back well before I became Chair, to the period years ago when the hon. Member for Amber Valley was a member of the Committee. The Committee’s 2017 report stated:

“Free and impartial Pension Wise guidance, provided by telephone or face-to-face appointment, is greatly valued by those who use it. Take up, however, is not high enough.”

The report went on to point out that

“the existing Pension Wise promotion regime” had

“proved insufficient.”

It is a very good service: nine out of 10 of those who use it report high or very high satisfaction—that is a pretty impressive—but it is hidden away from most people. The default ought to be that people get an appointment. That is why the Committee has recommended at least trialling automatic Pension Wise appointments.

Sir Hector Sants, the chair of the Money and Pensions Service, told the Committee in March that 72% of people change their mind about what they will do with their pensions savings as a result of talking to Pension Wise. As he pointed out,

“that tells you that the vast majority of people, left to their own devices, will probably make a poor decision.”

As far as I can see, the Government’s current policy will leave the great majority of savers in exactly that position.

We need to do more. Government and regulators need to end their indifference on this. We need at least a trial of auto-enrolment into a service that enables better outcomes from pensions savings. There will no doubt be difficulties, but let us at least try it out. The Money and Pensions Service has told the Committee that it would be very happy to support a trial.

The Committee recommended that

“the Government sets a goal for the Money and Pensions Service for the combined use of Pension Wise and paid-for advice when accessing pension pots for the first time” of

“at least 60 per cent”.

The Minister suggested in his intervention that he thinks use might not be far from that level at the moment, so let us use that as a clear goal. The Committee also recommended

“that automatic Pension Wise appointments are trialled.”

We suggested

“two trials: one with an appointment when a person accesses their pension for the first time and another at the age of 50, before they can access their pension savings.”

I commend those proposals and recommendations to the Minister.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:22 am, 1st March 2022

May I start by wishing you a return to full health and strength, Ms Bardell, so that you are able to play football again? At the moment, it is quite unlikely that you are able to. It is nice to see you here.

It is a pleasure to hear Nigel Mills, who I thank for securing the debate. It is no secret that I am totally sold on the pensions issue. I know its importance, and I have expressed that in previous debates. As a teenager, I was encouraged by my mother—you never say no to your mum—to take out a pension at a very early age. Obviously, over the years, we have taken out a few others as well. There is no doubt in my mind that, in these uncertain times, it is more important than ever that people ensure not only that they have a pension, but that they have the one that works for them.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I know that, like me, he is sold on this issue. We can see from his earlier response that he is energetic and keen to respond to hon. Members’ questions.

I did a quick round robin in my office among the six staff I employ. Of the six, only two actively check their pensions—one personally and one with her financial adviser. I thought having a financial adviser was quite impressive. Some staff are obviously very aware of the future. The other four members of staff, ranging in age between 20s and 40s, have no knowledge of what to do with their pensions. I think that is query. They have a pension—that is good news—but they have no idea what it really means. That is the question and that is the thrust of this debate.

Without a UK-wide perception of the importance of pensions, we may be in trouble. People must be aware that it is not enough to know that they have a pension; they should be aware of what it is and actively try to understand what it will do for their future.

I received a detailed briefing from Just Group, which highlighted that, as noted by the Financial Inclusion Commission in January 2021,

“pensions have largely been absent from the financial inclusion debate—even though they are a major factor in ensuring people are financially and socially included in retirement.”

The concepts, terms and associated risks are unfamiliar to most, which creates risks for savers when research shows that the complexity of related decisions is high and the familiarity with the products, options and processes is so low.

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

I am trying to make it a tradition to always intervene on the hon. Gentleman in any debate. I feel that Parliament is better when he intervenes, so I have decided that I will always try to intervene on him. The hon. Gentleman raised the point that pensions are not part of the financial inclusion debate—I look forward to appearing in front of Emma Hardy tomorrow, sort of. [Laughter.] The serious point is that the financial inclusion forum, which was set up after the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018 was brought in, specifically has Ministers from the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions working together. While it is not the main event—I totally accept that—there is no doubt that a real effort has been made. I would urge those who doubt my comments to look at the specifics of the reports of that financial inclusion forum.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I never doubt the Minister’s commitment to do what he says; I am sold on it already.

The Government created Pension Wise in 2015 as a free, impartial guidance service for people to use before accessing defined contribution pensions under the pension freedoms policy. There has been a lot of change in policy direction. The service was intended to enable informed decision making and has received consistently excellent feedback. User evaluations found that 94% of Pension Wise appointment customers were either very or fairly satisfied—at 77% and 18% respectively—with 97% saying they had already recommended or would recommend the service to others. That is good news for Pension Wise, but it also leaves people more informed and better equipped to avoid pension scams than non-users.

However, Pension Wise usage remains low and has actually fallen over the last three years. I do not think that we can ignore that. FCA data shows that the number of DC pension pots accessed after Pension Wise was used fell from 94,744 in 2018-19 to 94,274 in 2019-20, and down to 81,805 in 2020-21—a 14% reduction. We cannot ignore those facts. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how we can energise that again. Similarly, the number of pensions accessed via a regulated financial adviser fell by 4% in that period. That is important because Pension Wise provides an opportunity for savers who do not access financial advice to at least understand their options and speak with a professional who can impart key, relevant information, answer their questions and correct misunderstandings. However, the FCA data confirmed that hundreds of thousands of savers are accessing their pension benefits each year without first using Pension Wise, even though appointments are available for free. We must reach that mindset and change that.

There is clearly a massive breakdown in communication with our working people regarding pensions and the fact that they should have an active role in that respect. There is a fear concealed behind the attitude of my younger staff, which we should perhaps look at, that they “don’t do finance”—those are their words. When I asked whether they had ever topped up their pension with additional money in their account, they looked at me blankly and asked, “What does that mean?” We must get the message across, beginning in schools and throughout working life, that pensions are not something to be scared of.

Ms Bardell, you have been kind with your time, as have other hon. Members, so I will conclude with this point. A pension is a part of life, in preparation for the hopefully happy days of retirement—hopefully people will all see that. However, what will add to that happiness is a working pension that can provide when we cannot and do not work. We all have a part to play in that. I look to the Minister, as I always do—I know that he understands where I and others are coming from—to outline how we can get the engagement that is apparently, for some, missing.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

Before I call on the Front Benchers, I will just say that I expect there to be at least a few minutes left at the end for Nigel Mills to wind up.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 10:29 am, 1st March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate Nigel Mills on bringing this debate forward. I know that he has followed this issue for some time, always with diligence and concern for the outcomes experienced by pension savers. I also thought that he spoke very well in the recent social security benefits up-rating debate.

The hon. Member set out clearly how complex pensions can be and the need, therefore, for people to access impartial advice to get the best outcome from the pensions that they have worked hard to save for over their lives. His final point was that if we do not run a trial of auto-appointments, people will continue to make the wrong decisions and be at risk of being scammed, and there will still be no evidence of the value of auto-appointments.

We also heard good contributions from Emma Hardy, from the Chair of the Select Committee, Stephen Timms, and from Gareth Davies—and no debate would be complete without Jim Shannon. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle and the right hon. Member for East Ham both spoke about the risk of people getting scammed, and we need to remember that. What could be more heart-breaking than working hard all your life, looking forward to a comfortable retirement, and then being scammed out of your lifetime savings? It is awful.

Another thing I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to that needs to be addressed is that there are people who give the wrong advice or scam people, and then set themselves up as a claims management company to advocate for the people who just lost their money. That needs to end. The Government must put regulations in place to stop these people reinventing themselves as claims management companies.

A constituent of mine who is a financial adviser highlighted that her fees as a regulated financial adviser are going through the roof, so people are accessing unregulated advisers who do not pay those fees and can undercut the people providing real advice. That is another subject the Government need to address.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

The Select Committee, of which I am a member, has heard evidence from the Association of British Insurers, the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association, the Financial Inclusion Commission and Age UK, which all say that there should be an evaluation trial of auto-appointments as a means of increasing take-up of pension guidance. They are correct, are they not?

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

My hon. Friend is right; I was going to come on to that. When the industry and all those bodies are saying that there should be a trial of auto-appointments, it is not controversial, and is something the Government should embrace. It was a Conservative Government that set up the Pension Wise advice system as a complementary service to the pension freedoms legislation, so it surely makes sense that the Government want to ensure that as many people as possible access impartial advice.

According to the Association of British Insurers, over £42 billion has been flexibly withdrawn since 2015, but just 14% of defined-contribution pension pots are accessed after the use of Pension Wise. We are talking about potentially billions of pounds being accessed with a high risk of it not being utilised properly for maximum gain. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley pointed out, people might make decisions that suddenly mean they are in higher tax bracket for the first time in their lives. Simple advice would remedy that.

Realistically, those figures should make the Minister sit up right away and pledge to take action. As others have highlighted, Financial Conduct Authority data confirms that the use of guidance and advice has actually decreased in recent years. Again, that should be an urgent call to action for the Government.

In March 2020, the chairman of the Money and Pensions Service, Sir Hector Sants, told the Work and Pensions Committee:

“A significant number of the people who contact Pension Wise will come away saying that, after having spoken to our guidance service, they have concluded that they should do something different from what they had in mind in the first place… There is a figure that suggests that 72% of people are saying they have changed their mind about what they will do as a result of talking to our guidance service. In a way, that is a simple statistic that tells you that the vast majority of people, left to their own devices, will probably make a poor decision.”

Again, £42 billion has been accessed since 2015, but 72% of the small number of people who received advice ended up making different decisions following receipt and consideration of that advice. The level of cash that is being accessed, with poor decisions possibly made on the back of that, is frightening—and, of course, some people are being scammed altogether.

The chairman of the Financial Conduct Authority, Charles Randell, made the following observation when asked about the adequacy of regulatory policy when he gave oral evidence to the Treasury Committee in November 2020:

“This issue about people making poor choices when exercising the freedoms and responsibilities that have been put on them in the last 10 years, through a variety of changes in Government policy, is probably the one that I worry about most of all.”

Does the Minister not share these concerns? I am concerned that he does not. I welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for East Ham highlighted comments that the Minister has made previously that he does not seem to be holding true to. Is the Minister blind to these concerns that everybody in the industry is raising?

The other crucial aspect in all this is that, for those who have used Pension Wise, it has been deemed a success. When the Government have a success story that they can relay, why are they not trying to build on it and enhance it? The 2019-20 Pension Wise user evaluation found that 94% of appointment users were very or fairly satisfied with their overall experience of Pension Wise; 88% of appointment users said that Pension Wise helped to improve their understanding of pension options; and 70% of Pension Wise users correctly answered eight true or false statements relating to their pension options, compared with 43% of non-users. That last statistic is proof of the additional knowledge gained by accessing impartial advice.

In contrast to the evidence gathered since 2015, the Government’s approach to non-advised savers seems to inhabit a space somewhere between “fingers crossed it’ll be okay” and “if savers stuff it up, that’s their own fault”. Again, that brings me back to what the hon. Member for Amber Valley outlined about the known risk that affects savers; he put it well.

Currently, 19 million people are at various stages of their defined-contribution pension journey. Their retirement outcomes depend, first, on the generosity of their employer’s pension offer and, secondly and critically, on the decisions they make at the accumulation and decumulation stages. If a saver has contributed to pensions for over 40 years, surely it is right that the system does all it can to ensure that they take as little time as 40 minutes for a guidance appointment.

The Minister’s response to this issue of low take-up of guidance and advice has not been to address it directly but instead to point to the “stronger nudge”, as he did earlier, or to other pet projects such as mid-life MOTs and pension dashboards. They are measures that I support, but they are not available in the here and now, whereas Pension Wise is. As for the stronger nudge, the FCA and his own Department admit that, on the basis of trials to date, it is unlikely to have a dramatic effect on guidance take-up. Indeed, the trials suggested that there would be an increase of only 8% in the take-up of advice, so that clearly is not the solution.

Once again, I ask the Minister and the Government to commit to a trial of auto-appointments. Two trials could be considered: one with an appointment when a person accesses their pension for the first time, and another—this idea came from the Select Committee—with an appointment at the age of 50, before someone can access their pension savings, which is the kind of mid-life MOT that the Minister supports. Piloting an auto-appointment system for the Pension Wise service is a clear recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee, and the Association of British Insurers supports it too.

The Committee also recommended that the UK Government should set a goal of at least 60% of people using Pension Wise, the Government guidance service from MaPS, or receiving paid-for advice when they access their pension pots for the first time. Meeting such a target would see billions of pounds being accessed in a way that minimises the risk of poor decision making by people who are not used to assessing such sums of money.

Will the Minister confirm, once and for all, that he supports a trial of auto-appointments, as recommended by the Select Committee and the industry? It is a no-risk option for the Government to implement. Will he confirm the timescale for such a trial? If not, will he say why he is ignoring the advice and why he is willing to allow people unwittingly to continue making bad decisions with their pension pots? If they are accessing that money and using it for the best means possible, it should be able to support not just them but the wider economy better.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 10:39 am, 1st March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I pay tribute to Nigel Mills for what I thought was a very thoughtful and knowledgeable speech, which has left us all with a great deal of food for thought.

I also thank the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, and Members across the House, in particular my hon. Friend Emma Hardy and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). In addition, Gareth Davies—I beg his pardon—spoke with great knowledge of the sector; I appreciate his detailed explanation.

I do not want to completely rehash or repeat points that have been made by colleagues, but I want to focus the Minister and ask him for a response on one or two very important things. First, however, we should acknowledge, seven years on from their introduction, that while increased pension freedoms have brought greater flexibility, they have also resulted in a potentially greater degree of risk. Although advice services such as Pension Wise have played an important role in making advice more available, the service’s own figures show that just 14% of savers are accessing that advice. That really is not good enough.

Clearly, most people will make a decision about their pension—a decision of this scale—only once in their lives, so it is staggering that only 14% of people are receiving appropriate advice from Pension Wise. Imagine if only 14% of people were seeking advice for any other major financial decision—obviously, alarm bells would be ringing in Ministers’ offices and across the relevant sector. We have to reflect on that, so I hope that the Minister will try to address some of the thoughtful and well-made points raised by the hon. Member for Amber Valley and others.

I also want to draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the same points have been raised by a number of other voices outside of the House today, so I hope he will go into this issue in some detail. I hope, in particular, that he will address the point made by the hon. Member for Amber Valley that many of the people who are not seeking advice have smaller pension pots and possibly less financial experience, and may need a greater degree of support, while those seeking advice appear to have larger pension pots and, arguably, may have a bit more financial experience. That seems to be the wrong way around.

I hope that Government policy can focus on that and, in particular, that they will look at some of the behavioural points—the nudges—and ways that they may legitimately assist people in this important matter. The Chair of the Select Committee also raised some interesting and thoughtful points on the issue of the potential trial service. I hope the Minister will comment on those.

I appreciate that time is limited, so I want to draw the Minister’s attention to another key area; I hope he will update the House on what the Government intend to do on this matter. The flip side of the lack of advice is the very sad and quite worrying growth in the number of scams; it is interesting that the two things have happened at the same time. While organisations such as Age UK have produced guidance to support those who may be vulnerable, it is really the role of Government to do much more on this important issue. Again, as with the issue of the lack of advice, the question of scams has been highlighted by the official Opposition, the Work and Pensions Committee, former Ministers and other respected figures such as Martin Lewis.

The pensions industry estimates that more than 40,000 people may have been cheated out of £10 billion-worth of pensions savings since freedoms were introduced in 2015. Action Fraud has reported that pension scams are becoming one of the UK’s most common types of fraud. These scams are often harder to spot than expected, even for those with good IT or tech skills. Research by Citizens Advice showed that one in eight people who said they were confident with technology found it difficult to spot a scam. However, it is possible to take action against that sort of fraud; as the Minister knows well from his involvement in the passage of the Pension Schemes Act 2021, the Government have taken action on telephone fraud, which is a related type of scam.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If someone is approached by a person with a scheme to improve their pension that looks too good, it probably is too good. Be careful—if someone promises you the world, the stars and the moon, there is something wrong.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point; we do need to apply common sense to these very important matters. As I was saying, the Pension Schemes Act made it illegal to cold call and offer advice, in an attempt to reduce the number of telephone scams. Obviously, there are other forms of scams.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I think everyone would accept that the sophistication of the fraudsters is developing day by day, and that both legislation, and police and the Government action, is playing catch up—as it always will. Therefore, there is an urgency to deal with this; while the Government might have dealt with the telephone matter, scams are now more likely to be online or via other avenues. We need to make this a priority.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that, sadly, technology and the ability of fraudsters is racing ahead. We need to take far more urgent action to tackle these awful problems. In fact, she has anticipated my next point; I hope that the Minister will clarify the Government’s position on this. I understand that he may be interested in the possibility of this action being included in the Online Safety Bill, and I ask him to update us on the discussions he has had with his colleagues. That Bill offers all sorts of possibilities to tackle these dreadful frauds. I hope that the Government will take determined action to tackle those problems, given that they have legislation that could address them in an appropriate and timely manner.

I will briefly mention some concerns about the roll-out of the dashboard and one or two other tools. Like Members across the House, I welcome the Government’s approach in attempting to devise the dashboard, and I recognise the need for greater information, but I understand from speaking to the industry that there are a series of technical problems. We should not let those delay the process too much. I ask the Government to take on board the industry’s views on that, and to be careful to ensure, as it is rolled out, that the dashboard is robust. I see that the Minister is nodding; I am sure that he will want to elaborate on that. It is important not only to achieve the dashboard, but to make sure that it is a high-quality product that offers the hoped-for level of reassurance and advice.

It is fair to say that the Government are taking rather small steps in the right direction, but they need to do so much more on the issue of advice. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on those points and reassure us that he is addressing this issue with the level of energy that is needed.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:47 am, 1st March 2022

First and foremost, we all wish you well, Ms Bardell. We gather you were doing your best Franz Klammer impersonation down the slopes; I am certain that you will be back on the football field before too long. You are also the third Chair that we have enjoyed in barely a one-and-a-quarter-hour debate.

Today is an odd day, as we have all struggled through the pension-related tube strikes. We have dealt with many known unknowns, both in life and in the speech of my hon. Friend Nigel Mills. In broad terms, I was in glorious agreement with him. The wonderful thing about pensions debates in this House is that effectively we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, and trying to get the same outcomes. However, there might be differences in how we reach those outcomes and, in the nine minutes that I have, I will try and address the 35 to 40 points that have been put to me that require urgent answers.

I will defer some of the questions asked by Emma Hardy because, to my great delight—I was told only last week—I am going to the Treasury Committee tomorrow specifically to answer on financial inclusion. That issue was also raised by Jim Shannon. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle raised a couple of points that I want to refer to briefly. She described the number of pension pots as four to five; we will probably have 10 to 11. It is a much bigger problem, but we are on it with two particular interventions. In the short term there is the pension tracing service, which I strongly urge all colleagues to recommend to their constituents, because they can be tracked down on the present basis. However, it is relatively basic and clunky; the dashboard is clearly a much better thing.

I will address a specific point about the dashboard at the outset. Many parts of my portfolio and job involve herculean heavy lifting—as Stephen Timms, who has done my job previously, knows. The dashboard involves the most herculean heavy lifting of them all, taking 40,000 pensions schemes, getting all the data together, making them all talk to one another, incorporating the state pension and doing so in a data-friendly safe way.

I want to put on record my support for Chris Curry and the team. I have to say that I am not aware of such criticisms from businesses. That relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley: data is everything here. It really is. The pension schemes have to improve their data, and once they do, a whole host of positive actions can flow. The dashboard is clearly one of them. It will allow an individual to see what they have, in the comfort of their own home or with an independent financial adviser, and do all of the things that we want them to do. The data flows from the dashboard decisions. The industry is concerned that I am pressing them to get its data together in a robust way; I do not shy away from that. Some people want me to go faster than I am. I would like to think that we are actually going quite fast to get the dashboard up and running. It will be live, in some shape or form, very soon.

That brings me to the specific points made in the debate; I obviously look forward to being grilled on all matters of financial inclusion tomorrow. In my experience, automatic enrolment opt-outs are not actually as bad as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle described, but I will take her point away and have a look at it. Obviously, they are a relevant factor.

I want briefly to deal with the point about the FCA. Clearly, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley chose to have the Pensions Minister answer today’s debate rather than the Treasury Minister who deals with all matters of advice and the FCA. That makes my life a little difficult, but we are one Government, so I answer for everything, whatever the situation. The 2020 evaluation of the “Financial Advice Market Review” found that the financial advice market was going in the right direction, with more people accessing advice, but also recognised that some remaining challenges in the market needed further work. The Treasury is working with the FCA on the next steps. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle raised the FCA’s stronger nudge approach. I believe that the Department for Work and Pensions is actually going way faster. In 93 days, by my count—on 1 June—the stronger nudge policy will come into law. Although I obviously revere and adore the FCA and Treasury, and everything that they do, the DWP is at the front of that particular queue and is driving that policy forward.

Let me try to address the point about the signposting of Pension Wise by pension schemes. Wake-up packs are provided on an ongoing basis, but we also believe very strongly that impartial guidance from the Money and Pensions Service is a very good thing. MAPS is a very young institution. Parliament decided, following Select Committee reports, to legislate to create it and it melded all the previous operations together. It is a young institution—not even four years old. We are gently trying to nudge it into a greater take-up of all of its services, and it is part of the dashboard delivery service, for example. Although Pension Wise provides guidance about the options for accessing defined-contribution savings, it is primarily designed for those aged 50 and above who are making decisions about how to access such savings.

However, we are ignoring the MoneyHelper pensions service, formerly the Pensions Advisory Service. No one has mentioned it in any way whatsoever. The stats show that there were 113,000 Pension Wise appointments in 2020-21, and that MoneyHelper supported 220,000 people during that time. We are very focused. I understand why, in discussing Pension Wise, we have not discussed in any way all of the great work that the Money and Pensions Service is doing with MoneyHelper on pensions. The number of people using the service went up by 8% in 2019-20.

Separately, a report by the Social Market Foundation, which is a lovely organisation—I revere the fact that any think-tank is doing any work on pensions, and I agree with my hon. Friend Gareth Davies that the more we talk about them, the better—made the point that we need a greater online service. The number of people using MoneyHelper’s digital pension tools has grown by 47%, from 170,000 users in the first quarter of 2020-21 compared with Q1 of the following year. There is much greater usage of MoneyHelper and other online services.

The statistics on MoneyHelper show how much the service helps, but I want to address the stronger nudge. It comes into force on 1 June, which, off the top of my head, is in 93 days. It requires schemes to go beyond signposting to guidance, as they currently do. They will be required to take an active role by offering to book a Pension Wise appointment on behalf of the member when they seek to access their defined contribution savings. That will be presented as a normal part of the process for accessing a pension.

Schemes will also be unable to proceed with any application to access savings until members have either received or explicitly and clearly opted out of guidance. For occupational schemes, the opt-out must be given in a separate communication from the member. We believe that that will ensure that all members are required to make an active, informed choice on guidance before they are able to access their savings. I believe that that strikes the right balance and is the right way forward. Although we all want to do more, Parliament has decided and has legislated for the Money and Pensions Service, Pension Wise and the Department for Work and Pensions to drive forward the stronger nudge as the way forward. I urge colleagues to get behind that in the short term.

In the short time I have left, I want to address fraud. Obviously, we believe that the stronger nudge will help. The Pension Schemes Act 2021 sets out four red flags to address those specific problems, and I pay tribute to the Pension Scams Industry Group and the other organisations with which I have worked. I hope that the draft Online Safety Bill will continue the good work that pre-legislative scrutiny has shown we are doing on pensions and investment scams. I have personally raised that with Google, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. All those companies, particularly Google, need to be acutely aware that it is utterly unacceptable that there are 47 fake versions of Aviva at the top of the online search list, and that that needs to stop. To be fair, those companies can do that themselves without Government action.

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

I do not have time, as I have only 30 seconds left. Those companies do not need Government action. They can stop all of that by simply vetting their advertisers. It is long overdue that Google and others took such action. I sincerely hope that they do so on an ongoing basis, rather than our having to force them to do so at the threat of penalties.

I have totally run out of time, but I thank all colleagues. I genuinely believe we are all on the same pathway and journey, but just nudging each other in slightly different ways.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 10:58 am, 1st March 2022

I am grateful to the Minister and to all colleagues who have taken part in the debate. It is regrettable that we did not quite give the Minister a strong enough nudge to convince him to make a change to the Government’s position at this stage. We will keep a watching eye on that and come back to it, because even with the stronger nudge starting in 93 days, as the Minister said, we know that will not get us to where we want to be.

Hundreds of thousands of people will still make this life-changing decision without the information they need, and without even knowing that they do not have the information that they need. That is not a situation that we want to see and it will inevitably lead to some people suffering detriment that they could dodge with the free, relatively quick and completely painless high-quality guidance service that is out there—a system that we put in place and wanted to become the norm. We wanted high take-up and we have not got there yet.

I recognise that there has been progress and I am sure we will see some progress as the new rules come in from 1 June. I hope that they solve the problem and that it goes away, but I fear it will not and I look forward to the next time we are here debating the issue. Hopefully, we can then make some further progress that we did not quite get to today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered take-up of pensions guidance and advice.