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Private Sector Pension Abuse

Volume 788: debated on Monday 22 January 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to an Urgent Question in another place on private pension schemes. The Statement is as follows:

“The vast majority of employers do the right thing by their pension schemes and members can expect to receive the pension benefits they have paid for throughout their working lives. The Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund were set up in 2004 to provide pension scheme members with a safety net to ensure that their pension benefits received some protection when things go wrong—it is a fact that some businesses will fail. This PPF approach has been supported on a cross-party basis since 2004. To prevent irresponsible employers offloading pension liabilities to the PPF, the Pensions Regulator was given a wide range of powers, including the ability to recover significant assets where employers had failed to take account of the scheme. There are around 6,000 defined benefit schemes and cases like these are few and far between.

It is the responsibility of the Pensions Regulator to strike a balance between protecting members and PPF levy payers, and minimising any adverse impact on the sustainable growth of an employer when it comes to the regulation of defined benefit funding. The Pensions Regulator does not have the power to stop businesses paying out bonuses to executives or dividends to shareholders. However, if it sees a situation where it believes a scheme is not being treated fairly, the Pensions Regulator will investigate to see whether use of its powers is appropriate. However, this Government are clear that where sponsoring employers are able to meet their pension promises, they should, and must, do so, and that is why we have suggested ways that the current system could be strengthened to enable the Pensions Regulator to be more proactive.

In February 2017, we published our Green Paper, Security and Sustainability in Defined Benefit Pension Schemes, which included suggested measures that would strengthen the powers of the Pensions Regulator by introducing punitive fines for actions that harm a pension scheme. We also set out powers to enhance the regulator’s ability to demand information to ensure effective governance and spot issues before damage is done.

Our June 2017 manifesto reaffirmed this intent by proposing to give the regulator the power to impose a punitive fine alongside a contribution notice so that pension scheme members are fully protected. The details of the fine would be worked through with all relevant stakeholders but it would represent a significant strengthening of the deterrent.

Also we intend to make certain corporate transactions subject to mandatory clearance by the Pensions Regulator, but we must take care to ensure that these measures do not have an adverse effect on legitimate business activity and the wider economy.

I should also tell colleagues that we have received 800 responses to the Green Paper, and these are currently being reviewed by the department. The White Paper is in progress and will be published this spring.

Effective regulation is dependent on a prompt flow of information between parties concerned and compliance with rules and processes. Following the publication of the White Paper, we will introduce new legislation to ensure that the regulator gets the information it requires to conduct investigations and casework effectively and efficiently. It remains the case that this Government support free markets and capitalism but this has to be conducted responsibly”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the UQ asked in the other place. Yesterday, the Prime Minister chose to announce via the media that, in part in response to the collapse of Carillion, the Government plan to introduce tough new rules to stop private sector pension abuse—so we are to play catch-up again, it seems, following the pensions freedoms debacle. Carillion had 13 defined benefit schemes in the UK, with some 27,500 members and a combined pensions deficit of some £600 million.

We know that, according to its chief executive, Carillion had been on the radar of the PPF “for some time”, and it was on the watch-list by autumn 2017. Carillion gave its first profit warning in July of that year and its second on 29 September. The Pensions Regulator reported the close monitoring of risks and that it had had “heightened engagement” with the company since July’s profit warning. It apparently had some discussions with Carillion on a regulated apportionment arrangement but these came to naught.

Given the level of engagement and knowledge, which particular tightening of the regulatory framework are the Government considering? Precisely what additional powers for the regulator are contemplated, and what difference does the Minister think these would have made in the Carillion circumstances now faced?

More generally—I think that the Minister has confirmed this—in accordance with the Work and Pensions Select Committee recommendations, there will be a number of recommendations concerning mandatory clearance powers for corporate activities that put pension schemes at risk and new powers to fine those who act in an irresponsible manner. If the Government support those recommendations, how quickly does the Minister consider they will reach the statute book?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for mentioning that the Prime Minister clearly takes this situation extremely seriously. He reiterated that we intend to strengthen the regulator’s powers. Importantly, we have done that with care, introducing a Green Paper last year, and we have committed to the publication of a White Paper in the spring. Although the Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund manage the process of company insolvencies, and while most pension schemes are managed successfully and very robustly, we accept that there are instances where it might be possible to improve and strengthen the powers. We have received more than 800 responses to the Green Paper. The department is analysing these and will bring forward proposals as quickly as possible.

It is important to emphasise—I sense that the noble Lord opposite appreciates this—that it is hypothetical to suggest that a different set of powers for the Pensions Regulator, such as the ability to clear corporate activities, would have necessarily made a material difference to the pension schemes. Having said that, there has been strong communication between the regulator and Carillion since the middle of last year, when a profit warning was announced. But of course, a profit warning is a warning as opposed to a transaction, so it was not necessarily a sign that the company overall was in such difficulty.

It is important to stress that we are very keen to strengthen the powers but, at the same time, we need to ensure that the new measures we introduce build on existing measures that to a large extent have worked extremely well since 2004, as I said before. However, we want to strengthen the Pensions Regulator’s anti-avoidance framework and information-gathering powers.

I am afraid that as yet, I cannot be certain about when legislation will be forthcoming. Obviously, we will look forward to and welcome the consultations and responses to the White Paper.

My question is further to the important one raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about timing. Whereas the Statement is correct to say that big insolvencies happen infrequently, when they do happen they strike at the confidence among employees about occupational pension savings altogether. I hope the Minister shares the House’s concern about the indirect impact this may have on auto-enrolment. As the Minister knows, some important steps are being introduced in the next phase of auto-enrolment in the near future but, if there is a White Paper in March, it may be 2020 or 2021 before the regulations are available to regulators, auditors and others. Will the Minister undertake to do everything in her power to push forward proper and sensible consideration of the regulations to be introduced, with as much dispatch as it is possible to muster?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I share his concerns about the direct impact this might have on those who have pension plans and on those who are retired and in receipt of their pensions. Our drive on auto-enrolment has been extremely successful thus far. More than 9 million people have enrolled, via the auto-enrolment scheme, up to the end of last year. We will push this issue with as much dispatch as is sensible. Having said that, at the same time we do not want a knee-jerk reaction. We will publish our White Paper in the spring. We want to be sure that we make the right decisions and do not compromise the established, robust and, to a large extent, successful scheme that exists for the current powers of the Pensions Regulator. Yes, we must do all that we can. I am pleased to say that, as I speak, colleagues in another place are now debating the Second Reading of the single financial guidance body Bill, which I hope will support giving people advice and good counsel. The Pensions Advisory Service and others are already working on the Carillion issue. We are looking all the time to improve the system, to reassure people and to give them good advice and guidance on their pensions. We will legislate to do the right thing as soon as we can.

I am a non-expert in the field—a member of the public, if you like. The Statement talks about a,

“significant strengthening of the deterrent”,

and states that,

“employers have failed to take account of the scheme”.

As an outsider, I am concerned about those two important aspects of the Statement.

I agree with the noble Lord. It is important that we strengthen the deterrent to the best of our ability. That will be a signal to the behaviour of those who are charged with the responsibility of protecting the interests of their employees with regard to pension schemes. We must do all we can to reassure them. That said, it is important to emphasise that the system is—and must be—independent of government. There is a limit to what we can do to ensure that the right thing is done once the framework is in place. Indeed, I think that noble Lords opposite will agree that the introduction of the Pension Protection Fund in 2004 has gone a long way to reassuring people and has been incredibly effective in protecting people’s pensions, both current and into the future. But in response to the Carillion case, we take seriously the need to do what we can to improve or increase the deterrent. However, we must do that with care so as not to fetter the ability of business to be a successful, effective and important part of building our economy.