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Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Regulated Activities) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2015

Volume 760: debated on Monday 2 March 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Regulated Activities) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2015.

Relevant document: 23rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (Special attention drawn to the instrument)

My Lords, this instrument creates a new regulated activity in the Financial Conduct Authority’s regulated activities order. The new activity concerns the giving of advice on the conversion or transfer of a class of pension benefits known as safeguarded benefits, which are defined in the Pension Schemes Bill 2014-15, but are best understood as benefits that the Government have taken a decision to safeguard, because they offer a guaranteed income in retirement that is assessed to be particularly valuable. They include benefits commonly referred to as defined benefit, but also include benefits that offer other guarantees or promises. This new activity relates to a safeguard being created by the Pension Schemes Bill 2014-15 in the context of the new pensions freedoms announced at Budget 2014. The advice safeguard requires scheme trustees and managers to check that members have received appropriate independent advice before transferring or converting safeguarded rights into rights which can be accessed flexibly, and before paying an uncrystallised funds pension lump sum in respect of safeguarded benefits. This safeguard will ensure that members have fully considered the implications of giving up rights that provide a valuable guaranteed income in retirement. It is important that this safeguard is operational from 6 April 2015, when the new pension freedoms come into force.

In July 2015, the Government’s response to the consultation on freedom and choice in pensions committed that advice required under the safeguard would be provided by an FCA-authorised adviser. This instrument helps deliver on that commitment. This instrument provides for advice on the conversion and transfer of safeguarded benefits into flexible benefits to be regulated by the FCA in accordance with the regulatory framework established by the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.

Without this order, the FCA would regulate only advice on transfers of safeguarded rights to contract-based schemes. The new regulated activity created by the instrument allows the FCA to regulate advice on all transfers of safeguarded rights and interests to trust-based schemes that can be accessed flexibly. The Government want to ensure that the consumer interest is prudently accounted for in the context of the new pensions freedom, and therefore this instrument has been brought forward to ensure the proper operation and consistent regulation of advice provided under the safeguard.

The approach of defining the appropriate independent advice required under the advice safeguard by reference to a new FCA-regulated activity was indicated during the Lords Committee stage of the Pensions Schemes Bill on 12 January this year. Amendments to the Bill were the made at Lords Report stage on 27 January to provide that the appropriate independent advice required by the Bill should be provided by a person who,

“has permission under Part 4A of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 … to carry on a regulated activity specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State”.

The House was informed in early January that the Treasury would lay an instrument to create the relevant regulatory activity. This is the order we are now debating.

The Financial Conduct Authority will set out in a forthcoming consultation paper the precise standards of advice it will require. This paper, which will be published very shortly, taken together with the Pension Schemes Bill, its regulations and this order, will ensure that the advice safeguard is robust, effective and fully operational when the pension freedoms come into force in April 2015.

I commend the order to the Committee and beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting this order. He has clarified my only concern of understanding. I wish I had had the conversation with him four or five working hours ago. As I understand it, the order does all sorts of bits and bobs, but its essence is in Article 7.8 which fills a hole in the FCA applying these standards to the transfer to trust-based schemes. It took me a great deal of time to find out the difference between a contract-based scheme and a trust-based scheme. I shall not repeat my understanding lest I have it wrong, but that seems to be the essence of the order.

The “Regulatory Triage Assessment – final stage” document offers three alternatives. Option 2 is:

“Amend the FCA’s Regulated Activities Order via statutory instrument such that advice on occupational transfers is fully regulated”.

It does not give a very convincing reason why it should not do this. It is not that we are not supporting this Bill. The Opposition have not opposed the general essence of what the Chancellor is trying to do, but the size of what is happening and the importance of quality advice cannot be overstated.

I believe it has been estimated that perhaps some 500,000 defined benefit scheme holders may seek transfers almost straightaway. I think that a firm called Hargreaves Lansdown has done that. Given the very sudden discontinuity that will occur in April, is the Minister confident that the advice industry has the capacity to meet people’s needs? Does the pensions industry have the ability to meet the apparently thousands of transfer requests that it will face? Is the Minister happy that the mechanisms are available to protect the public from fraudulent operators? Does the Minister think that the Government have done enough to educate the public on the size and challenge of the changes they face? I happened to come across an article in the Observer this weekend which was rather less than reassuring. It said:

“Figures from insurance company Zurich show that, while the average length of retirement is 25 years, over half the population believe they will be retired for 20 years or less. Most people also predict they will not live beyond 85. But figures suggest half of people retiring now could live to 90 or beyond”.

That does not show an appropriate level of public understanding in facing this significant change. The noble Lord’s colleague, Steve Webb, the Minister in the other place, did not exactly use resoundingly assuring language in the article. He said:

“We wouldn’t be doing it if we thought it was a disaster, but you do take a risk when you trust people with their own money”.

I wish that his tone had been slightly more reassuring—I hope that the Government have a rather greater aspiration than the avoidance of disaster. I hope that in the short time left before April they will do their best to improve the level of education among the general public so that not too many people make decisions that they subsequently regret.

The noble Lord is quite right to describe the order as filling a hole in the regulatory structure. That is exactly what it does. He talked about two separate changes that are taking place from 1 April. The relatively narrow one in terms of the number of people we think are likely to take advantage of it is the flexibility for people with a defined benefit scheme or other safeguarded scheme to move to a more flexible scheme. That is what the order covers. People in that category are required to take advice via a regulated adviser. We think that the majority of people with safeguarded pensions will find, on taking that advice, that it is in their best interests to retain them. However, it is for them, in discussion with the IFA community, to decide on a case-by-case basis.

I was asked whether there are enough properly qualified people to do the work. There are about 20,000 registered IFAs and around 7,000 of those are pension transfer specialists so it is quite a body of people. Given all the other changes that have taken place in the financial services sector, the concern of the IFAs in recent years has been that there was not enough work to go around—or would not be in future—on their old model of operating. I suspect that for this category of people, there will be adequate advice.

The article to which the noble Lord referred and many of his later comments were about the more general freedoms under which, from April, people will no longer have to take an annuity. There is a different and larger challenge there in terms of providing support for people in that category. As the noble Lord knows, we are setting up a completely new guidance service to advise people in that category. That service will have three strands—web-based, telephone and face-to-face—and is being developed by my colleagues in the Treasury. When I talked to them about this earlier, they assured me that they feel they are on track to have enough people and adequate systems in place to deal with the very large number of requests they will get.

One other thing that my colleague, Steve Webb, said about the change on 1 April was that he suggested people spend the day in bed rather than worry about changing their pensions literally on day one. It is important that people take time to get not just the guidance but also to think about how they want to dispose of the funding they have in their pension pot.

I completely share the concern of the noble Lord and several commentators that many people do not understand pensions at all. They have a pension but that is about all they know about it. One of the great potential benefits of this change and the fact that everybody will get free guidance is that it will help people to understand how a pension works. I think there is a view in a lot of people’s minds that a pot of money called a pension is somehow different in some mysterious way from any other pot of money. The truth is that it is a pot of money available for them to dispose of, now pretty flexibly. People will need to confront their own mortality, possibly in a way that they did not feel they needed to in the past. That is undoubtedly a challenge to people but one that they should face up to, and not just because of how they deal with their pensions. It also affects a whole raft of ways in which they think about their later years. For many people on the normal retirement age, that period will be 30 years or more—a third of their life.

It is a challenge. We are putting in place robust, we hope, measures through the guidance systems in terms of these safeguarded pensions—the subject of this order. That advice will ensure that people get the level of support they need to take the correct decisions and enable them to get the very best out of their pension savings. Of course, at this stage we do not know whether our systems will be as robust as we hope they will be. We do not know quite how people will respond to this. However, I think we have behaved responsibly in not only opening up the freedoms but also putting in place a system to ensure that people can exercise those freedoms in a responsible manner for their own benefit.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.49 pm.