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Financial Assistance Scheme (Increased Cap for Long Service) Regulations 2018

Volume 788: debated on Monday 22 January 2018

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, these regulations will increase assistance payments for members of the Financial Assistance Scheme who may have been disproportionately affected by the cap on the amount of assistance payable to an individual member under the scheme. The cap is set at age 65 and is currently £34,229, reduced if a member opts to receive their assistance early. The cap helps to limit the costs of the Financial Assistance Scheme, which is funded by general taxation.

Individuals accrue high pensions for two reasons. Some were high earners, in which case they have generally had opportunities to secure alternative savings for retirement. Others have worked for a significant proportion of their working life to build up a pension with their employer and, consequently, may have little or no other private pension savings to offset against the shortfall between the capped assistance and what they had expected from the scheme. This change will benefit the second group of people.

Plainly put, these regulations will make changes to legislation to increase the current Financial Assistance Scheme cap for those with long service in a single eligible pension scheme. The provisions increase the cap by 3% for each full year of pensionable service over 20 years, subject to a new maximum of double the standard Financial Assistance Scheme cap. The new provisions will ensure that Financial Assistance Scheme members with long service will receive assistance which reflects a higher proportion of their accrued pension benefits.

It is estimated that 290 FAS members will benefit from the introduction of the regulations over the lifetime of the Financial Assistance Scheme. Although that is not many people, it is a significant proportion of the 500 people estimated to be affected by the cap. The change is expected to be widely welcomed by Financial Assistance Scheme members with long service, and their families.

Around £1.5 trillion is held under management in defined benefit pension schemes, which helps to fuel the UK economy through investment in UK government bonds, corporate bonds and equities. The pensions provided by these schemes are on average £7,000 per annum, which can be a vital source of income for around 11 million current and future pensioners. The majority of nearly 6,000 defined benefit pension schemes are run effectively, and we are fortunate to have a robust and flexible system of pension regulation in the UK. However, recent events affecting a number of high-profile schemes have shown that, while a robust system is in place, schemes can fail, and it was right to implement the regime of pension protection provided by the Financial Assistance Scheme and the Pension Protection Fund.

The Pension Protection Fund provides compensation for pension scheme members whose employer became insolvent on or after 6 April 2005; the Financial Assistance Scheme provides assistance to members of schemes that started to wind up before that date. From its commencement, the Financial Assistance Scheme was criticised for providing less generous support than the Pension Protection Fund. However significant improvements have been made to the scheme by successive Governments.

On 6 April 2017, provisions for a long service cap were implemented in the Pension Protection Fund, and these regulations introduce a similar long service cap to the Financial Assistance Scheme. We estimate that the long service cap will increase the overall cost of the Financial Assistance Scheme payments by approximately £1.2 million per year in the first eight years before starting to slowly decrease over the following years. Unlike the Pension Protection Fund, which is funded by the residual assets topped up by a levy on pension schemes, the Financial Assistance Scheme is funded by general taxation.

The introduction of the increased Financial Assistance Scheme cap for long service gives rise to one-off administrative costs for the Financial Assistance Scheme, estimated in the Explanatory Memorandum to be between £500,000 and £700,000, but I am glad to say that the current cost estimate has fallen to £400,000. While the costs may seem high for the benefit of relatively few scheme members, there is a great deal of work to do to go back through records and identify the relevant members and their data. We believe the cost is justified because the long service cap is the right thing to do.

In conclusion, we remain committed to the principle of providing protection for members of pension schemes in the event of employer insolvency. The Government have listened carefully to stakeholders and the pension industry, and these regulations show that we are meeting our commitment to protect pension scheme members and make reforms where necessary. In my view, the provisions of the Financial Assistance Scheme (Increased Cap for Long Service) Regulations 2018 are compatible with the convention rights. I commend these regulations to the House.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, for her clear introduction to these regulations. As we have heard, they will amend the legislation to allow the Financial Assistance Scheme to pay a higher amount of assistance to capped FAS members who have long service in a single pension scheme. They allow an increase in the cap by 3% for each year of pensionable service over 20 years up to a maximum of double the standard cap. This is in addition to the inflationary increase in the amount of the cap. As we have heard, a parallel change has been made to the PPF, although not by the use of regulations, with effect from April 2017 in line with the policy to align the two systems and following a government Statement on 15 September 2016.

FAS and its follow-up, the PPF, have been important mechanisms—I think this is a view that we share—to improve confidence in defined benefit schemes. They protect some 11 million in the UK who belong to such schemes. For FAS to be involved, a scheme must have commenced wind-up between 1 January 1997 and 6 April 2005; after these dates, individuals would look to the PPF. We introduced these schemes when in government and continue to support them.

FAS would generally meet 100% of entitlement for those having reached retirement age when wind-up commences; for those who have not done so, members would generally receive 90% of the expected pension accrued at the point that the scheme began to wind up, subject, of course, to the cap. From recollection, the expected and actual pension amounts for these purposes would not always coincide with scheme definitions. Could the Minister comment on how they might diverge at the current point?

Notwithstanding the 6 April 2005 date, we know that there can be a considerable lead time between commencement of wind-up assessment and entry into FAS. According to the most recent accounts—the Minister might be able to confirm this—in the year to 31 March 2016 there were still some 23 schemes that completed wind-up, with a total of £141 million of assets transferred to the Government. Incidentally, could the Minister remind us how the receipt of scheme assets, employer contributions and FAS payments are dealt with in the government accounts?

As we have heard, the PPF took over responsibility for the management of FAS in 2009. By the end of 2015-16, it had completed the transition of 1,027 schemes, with 155,000 individuals entitled to FAS assistance. This is an impressive level of support, without which thousands of individuals would have received or be entitled to little or nothing at retirement. At a time when we are debating in general the merits or otherwise of outsourcing, FAS is a worthy example of the state stepping in to support failures of private pension provision.

It was announced that, in 2016, FAS would be closed to new applications. While this would keep the scheme open some 10 years longer than originally planned, have the Government made any assessment of the number of individuals who would lose out as a result of such a decision and what the Government’s saving would be? Failure to access FAS might be laid at the door of trustees or scheme administrators, but any loss would be suffered by members. Is that fair? Would failure to seek access to FAS cause any restriction on access to social security benefits?

We have seen a copy of the Government’s response to the consultation on the increased cap proposals. One issue arising is whether there should be a definition in the regulations of pensionable service, as it would help avoid confusion where service was under another scheme and would be disallowed. The Government say that they are content to rely on information from trustees about pensionable service based on the definition of pensionable service contained in individual scheme rules, but one bugbear of the scheme, at least initially, was the poor quality of some of the data held by various schemes. What is the current situation in this regard, and what confidence is there across the board that scheme data are now more robust? In how many cases has the FAS scheme manager had to issue guidance to individual schemes, and on what points?

It seems that, despite the original intent, periods of service accrued in a member’s own right are to be aggregated with those arising under pension credit arrangements in determining long service. We do not oppose this, but, for the record, perhaps the Minister would expand on the potential stumbling block referred to in the documentation should the alternative position have been adopted. Further, we support the potential inclusion in the long service cap of those in receipt of a survivor’s pension but who do not have any pensionable service of their own.

The Explanatory Memorandum draws attention to the reference to the European Court of Justice in the case of Grenville Hampshire. This is a matter engaging EEC directive 80/987 and whether in the event of an insolvency every employee should, inter alia, receive no less than 50% of their expected pension benefits. From recollection, this matter has been around for a little while. Perhaps the Minister would update the House on the current state of affairs. The risk would be where the current cap is in play and would, I presume, be ameliorated by these regulations. Should the Secretary of State or the board of PPF not prevail, what are the consequences?

The caps on both FAS and the PPF were a mechanism to limit costs and to guard against excessive risk-taking, the latter potentially arising where decisions could risk insolvency of a company where there was no chance of a diminution in executive pensions because they would be wholly underwritten by FAS or the PPF—that is, the moral hazard position. In amending this approach, we are asked by the Minister to recognise the unfairness for those whose long service has been in a single pension scheme and where, without raising the cap by length of service, they would be in no better position than someone with equivalent pension entitlement levels but who could secure additional benefits in a new scheme. We recognise that position.

It is noted that no impact assessment is offered for these regulations, although reference is made to the impact assessment for the Pensions Act 2014. Will the Minister say why no such assessment has been prepared, particularly given that, for FAS, after asset transfers and recovery the net cost is met by the public purse? Under PPF, it is met by the levy on other DB schemes. A phone call to officials suggested an annual cost of £1.2 million a year—indeed, the noble Baroness confirmed that figure—and that some 290 members would benefit. Given the stop on further FAS transfers, this is a finite population. Other things being equal, we might question whether this is a priority at the present time, but alignment with PPF, prior deliberations and fairness lead us not to oppose but to support these provisions.

Having recognised the principle, the question arises as to the quantum of the relaxation—in other words, the 3% for each full year of pensionable service over 20 years, subject to the limit of double the standard cap. Will the Minister remind us of the basis on which this 3% is computed? It should be noted that, for the PPF, the increased cap for long service could increase levy payments by some £139 million in the period to 2030. Will the Minister tell us how many recipients are likely to be involved over that period?

These regs are about FAS, but we should not let the moment pass without making a general point about the pensions environment and the PPF. Not only has it to deal with BHS but, as the result of last week’s events, also Carillion. It is to be welcomed that the PPF is in robust health, with, I think, £4.1 billion in reserve, but there is obviously a limit to the strain it can take. Subject to all this, I support the regulations.

My Lords, like my noble friend at the Dispatch Box, the Minister is a master of detail and I thank her for her helpful introduction. However, since they refer to Wales as well as the rest of Britain, have these draft regulations any relevance to the steel-workers of Port Talbot at the previous Tata company? Indeed, do they in any way impinge upon the pensions entitlement of the remnant of the steel industry across Britain? It is not that one expects steel pensions to be sky-high, which the cap might anticipate. If the Minister can in any way make reference to the beleaguered steel industry, and in particular those steel-workers in the great Port Talbot works who are very anxious about their pensions, that would be helpful.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on introducing these very important regulations. I spent years of my life helping the victims of failed pension schemes under the previous system, which had no insurance protection for lost pensions, despite the workers in those schemes having part of their state pension and their entire private pension savings included in their pension scheme as they were not allowed to have any other pension savings. Having been assured by the Government that their pensions were safe and protected by law, they found that it turned out that they could lose their entire pension. Indeed, many of them did, including steel-workers in south Wales at the time.

It is 10 years since the Financial Assistance Scheme was extended to mirror the Pension Protection Fund. It took a parliamentary ombudsman inquiry, a Public Administration Select Committee inquiry and then a case in the High Court, followed by a case in the Court of Appeal—where the victims were forced to take the then Government to court—to ensure that the Financial Assistance Scheme, which at the time was designed to help only a few of those who had lost their pensions and to replace only a small portion of the pensions they had lost, was extended to mirror the PPF. As the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, rightly said, it is only right that the continued mirroring of the scheme should be followed, and having extended the Pension Protection Fund cap, it is essential that the Financial Assistance Scheme cap must also be increased. I congratulate the Government on doing so.

With great respect, I remind my noble friend that this is not just funded by taxation. The assets from the failed schemes which had not already been committed to annuitisation have all been passed to the Treasury, and the DWP budget has to bear the cost of the ongoing funding for the Financial Assistance Scheme.

I also congratulate the Pension Protection Fund on taking over the administration and on its robust management of the Financial Assistance Scheme and, indeed, of the Pension Protection Fund itself. Given the news of the Carillion situation, this is a timely reminder of how important our system of pension protection and insurance for failed pension schemes is, compared to the dreadful situation that existed in this country not that long ago. We just had the 10th anniversary of the extension of the Financial Assistance Scheme to mirror the PPF. I support these regulations.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, who has devoted her lifetime to working in this area. It is much to the benefit of the House that she is able to contribute to these debates. I agree with much of what has just been said, both by her and by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie.

These regulations are welcome as far as they go. I agree strongly with the parity position the Government have taken between the PPF and the Financial Assistance Scheme. That makes me ask why there has been this delay in getting this statutory instrument brought forward, because last year we dealt with the PPF in a similar set of regulations, and I cannot understand why the two sets of regulations were not done at once. That might sound nit-picking, but it is symptomatic of the way the Financial Assistance Scheme can be treated as a poor relation of the PPF rather than as having full parity.

I declare an interest, although it is with a small “i”, because I am a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which looked at these regulations quite carefully. We got some assistance from the DWP, for which we are grateful, and the responses now appear in appendix 3 of the committee’s 15th report. A number of questions were raised when the committee looked at this issue. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, mentioned it, but although the Hampshire case has been going on for a long while and is now in the Court of Appeal and subject to the European Court of Justice, it has a bearing on this. We are entitled, at the very least, to an update on where the Government are. I know that the matter has been referred by the Court of Appeal for some further advice to the court in Europe, but the implications for these regulations would be quite direct and could be dramatic. It is therefore only right that the House should ask for what further update is available to the Minister this evening.

I will also ask some questions about the administrative costs. It is music to my ears that the costs of the IT system that is being introduced have been cut by nearly half—except I wish I believed that that happened in the real world. If we are talking about 290 continuing members—it is essential financial support for them—and the total cost of the scheme is £1.2 million a year for the next eight years or thereabouts, the Scotsman in me thinks, “Is there not a cheaper way of doing this?”. We are spending a lot of administrative money which might be made available to the 290 members currently in receipt of support from the FAS.

With the help of some clever actuaries—who do exist, and can come up with creative solutions—I wonder whether, in a closed scheme, some of the liabilities that the FAS has taken on could not be capitalised to the advantage of the members of the scheme. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, who I call my noble friend, having a long look down her nose at that suggestion. That may conceivably not be possible but my point is that we have a lot of administrative work in taking these liabilities seriously, as we should. But does common sense not give us an opportunity to look at a cleaner, long-term way? It might mean a payment up front to deal with it but we could then close the book on a full and final settlement, which would be to everyone’s advantage.

The proposal is that the DWP will have to bring in these uprating orders for the FAS of plus 3%, or whatever it is, for the next eight to 10 years. I do not understand why they are not valorised in some way to CPI. I know that some elements of it are but it seems something of an administrative sledgehammer to crack a nut to go through regulations to do this, when it is obvious that it is in parallel with the PPF scheme. We all know what is going on. Why is it not automatic and set at a rate that everybody understands, to prevent us having to do this in future?

Finally, on a powerful point made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, in my experience, when there are requests for information on which some of these calculations are made, the data that some pension trustees produce are dodgy if not fake. The Government need to be careful that they address that problem properly because, if they do not, inaccurate calculations are being made in a way that could prejudice the members of the scheme, who are not in a financially advantageous position. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure that they get what is due to them. Having said all that, I am happy to join others in supporting these regulations.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this brief debate. What I sense is a general welcome for these regulations. I shall do my utmost to try to respond to a number of questions that were put forward, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. I am not sure whether my pen could work fast enough for me to respond to all the questions and if there is anything I leave out, which I suspect there may be, I will endeavour to write to all noble Lords to fill in the detail.

Perhaps I may reiterate that the important thing about the regulations is responding to the policy, which, importantly, is to treat members of the Pension Protection Fund and the Financial Assistance Scheme as consistently as possible, where possible. The long-service cap for the Pension Protection Fund came into force on 6 April 2017. These regulations will introduce an equivalent long-service cap for the Financial Assistance Scheme. This cap applies to any pension that is in payment or will be paid. For example, if a member’s pension from their scheme was £39,000 a year and that scheme could not pay anything, the Financial Assistance Scheme would work out as 90% of that £39,000, which is £35,100. As the Financial Assistance Scheme cannot pay more than the cap amount which applies to the member, the member in this example would receive £34,229.

Following the introduction of the long service cap, Financial Assistance Scheme members will have their cap increased by 3% for each full year of pensionable service above 20 years when they first become entitled to payments from the Financial Assistance Scheme, subject to a new maximum of double the standard cap. Only a full year of pensionable service will be counted. Part years will not be included in the calculation.

The increase is applied to the cap amount in place for the member at the time assistance is first put into payment. The increase is not backdated and takes effect from the member’s first payday on or after the regulations come into force, currently expected to be implemented on 6 April 2018. From 1 April 2018, the basic cap amount will be increased to £35,256.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, it is important to emphasise that all members of the Financial Assistance Scheme will receive 90% of the maximum, while PPF members who are already in retirement will receive 100%. The assistance is calculated differently.

I was asked to comment on the difference between actual and expected pensions. The Financial Assistance Scheme is not intended to meet all pension costs; it is 90% of pension costs subject to the cap. I will write to the noble Lord to give some detail on the difference between actual and expected pensions.

I hear what my noble friend Lady Altman says about the assets of an insolvent company being passed to the Pension Protection Fund, which administers both schemes, but the Financial Assistance Scheme is funded through general taxation. The long service cap will increase the overall cost of Financial Assistance Scheme payments by approximately £1.2 million a year in the first eight years before starting to decrease slowly. The actual costs will depend on a number of factors, including pensioner deaths and the fact that the Financial Assistance Scheme closed to new schemes in September 2016. The actual costs in future years may be lower than the £1.2 million quoted. The Financial Assistance Scheme has paid £1.1 billion to March 2017. The assets are passed to the PPF.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked why 3% was chosen as the escalation amount. It was chosen because we believe it is sufficient to lift a substantial number of the target group out of the compensation cap entirely, while still being affordable for the taxpayer. Lower percentages did not achieve this outcome. Of the 500 people affected by the cap, 290 will benefit from this measure.

On the Hampshire legal challenge going to the Court of Justice of the European Union, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is correct. A hearing in the European Court of Justice is set for 8 March 2018. For the benefit of all noble Lords, this legal challenge by Mr Hampshire contends that article 8 of the EU insolvency directive requires the UK to ensure that every pension scheme member gets at least 50% of their accrued benefits in the event of the insolvency of the sponsoring employer.

It is possible for the capped amount of compensation or assistance to be less than 50% of the member’s accrued pension, for example where a member has a large pension due to a high salary and/or long service within the same pension scheme. However, we believe the numbers affected to be very low. Only around 400 PPF and 500 FAS members are currently affected by the cap, which represents around 0.3% of the total membership of both schemes as at April 2017. We estimate that a very small proportion of these capped members are not receiving at least 50% of their accrued pension, and the increased FAS cap for long service will further reduce the number of members affected.

The Government’s concerns regarding the position for which Mr Hampshire argues relate to both the potential costs and the undermining of the principle of the cap. The impact on government, the PPF and pension schemes more generally in the event of an adverse decision would depend on the precise terms of the judgment, but the implications are likely to be significant. Even with relatively few scheme members affected, any requirement to ensure that every member of every scheme receives no less than 50% of their original scheme entitlement could, depending on the terms of the judgment and the nature of any legislative changes made in response, significantly increase the costs for both the FAS, which is funded by the taxpayer, and the PPF, which is funded via a levy on eligible pension schemes. We await judgment in the case in due course, and of course the Government will carefully consider it.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about poor data from FAS and how many times FAS schemes have had to issue guidance. I regret to say I do not have that information to hand, but I will write to noble Lords to confirm it. The noble Lord also asked why no impact assessment was prepared for the FAS long-service cap regulations. An impact assessment was completed on the policy in preparation for the Pensions Act 2014. As for what other compensation cap options the Government considered, we considered doing nothing, treating the FAS members as early retirees and paying 100% of the pension, reducing the actuarial reduction for early retirees, raising the cap for all, and finally providing a specified minimum per cent of the original pension accrued. However, having a compensation cap that rises according to length of service was the chosen option: 20 years and a 3% increase for each full year of service were selected.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked about the impact on British Steel. There is no impact: these regulations do not impact on Tata or British Steel. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also asked about the schemes left to transfer. FAS applies only to pension scheme members whose employers became insolvent before the existence of the PPF in April 2005, so the 2016 deadline still gave more than 10 years to transfer into FAS, which I hope noble Lords will agree is some considerable time.

What struck me when I looked at the data was that for the last year, up to March 2016, there were still some 23 schemes transferred into FAS, notwithstanding that it was 10 years or more since the obligation to commence winding up. If I understand correctly and there were 23 schemes for that period, how many were left out of the subsequent period and have been chopped off? This is particularly an issue if the failure—if it is a failure—to pick up that detail was with the trustees or the scheme administrator, because the consequence would fall on the individual member of the scheme.

I understand the question posed by the noble Lord; indeed, when I was discussing this with officials, I was amazed that it took 10 years. To begin with, I could not understand why the scheme closed to new entrants as late as 2016. I cannot say whether the figure of 23 schemes is correct for the final year but I will check and respond to the noble Lord; I shall seek to find out how many were left out and how many individuals might thereby have lost out. I also have a little more information regarding Tata: because this provision applies to schemes wound up before 2005, it is relevant not to Tata but to the PPF scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked why the Government have taken so long to introduce the long service cap. There have been significant reforms to pension legislation over the last few years, and the introduction of the FAS long service cap is the latest change in a programme of work to treat members of the FAS and PPF schemes more consistently. I hope the noble Lord will accept that pension legislation is complex. It was important that we consulted on draft FAS long service cap regulations to ensure that the legislation operated as intended and did not have any unintended consequences. As a result, December 2017 was the earliest that we could lay the regulations. I appreciate that members of the FAS will be frustrated by the perceived delay but we had a legal obligation to consult on the regulations. The public consultation helpfully identified some small changes that were required to ensure that the regulations operate as intended for eligible FAS members.

We also had to ensure—I think this brings us on to the next question posed by the noble Lord—that the costs were proportionate and to structure the long service cap to ensure that no further costs would be incurred. The noble Lord was very concerned about the administrative cost. I share that concern; it seems like an enormous amount of money for the relatively few people affected. At least I can confirm that the costs are less than had first been forecast. It would be fair to say from the department’s perspective that we are continually looking at where costs can be kept to a minimum, not least because those costs fall on the taxpayer.

While in the past there has been much criticism and scepticism around the introduction of digital systems to support more effective, efficient and cost-effective systems for the administration of such schemes, it is fair to say that systems are proving more robust as technology advances and becomes more understood by users. However, it is incumbent on all of us to keep an eye on that in terms of ensuring that we do all that we can to reduce costs. The trouble is that we are talking about checking records of individuals. That takes time and sometimes it is easier to do manually for such a small number of people. I accept the noble Lord’s point: in some ways, one might question whether it is simpler and more cost effective to do it manually. I take very much on board what he has said.

With regard to transaction costs, going on from what I have just said—sorry to string this out—the PPF, which administers the FAS, is currently in-sourcing member data from Capita. The FAS data is currently out of date, incomplete and often paper-based, requiring manual processing and checking, and that is not a one-off cost. We should continue to look at that and encourage those who administer the scheme to do the same, although I am sure they are cognisant of these considerable costs.

The regulations will ensure that individuals who have worked hard for a single employer for many years are not penalised by the cap. This group of savers have built up a large pension pot, not because they are high earners but because they have worked for one employer for the majority of their working lives and, as a result, will not have had the opportunity to secure additional income in retirement.

The decision to increase the total amount of assistance that this group can receive has not been taken lightly, as the Financial Assistance Scheme is funded by the taxpayer. As my noble friend Lady Altmann said, a considerable amount of consultation, lobbying, and so on, was undertaken to encourage the Government to introduce the regulations. But to leave the situation unchanged would create an inequitable situation where those with long service in the Pension Protection Fund were treated more favourably than those in the Financial Assistance Scheme and break our commitment made in another place on 15 September 2016.

I reassure all noble Lords that no new funding commitments have been or will be made in respect of the scheme. Since 2005, employer insolvencies have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Pension Protection Fund. Unlike the Financial Assistance Scheme, the Pension Protection Fund is mainly funded by an industry levy and is therefore not reliant on the public purse.

I believe that the correct balance has been struck between securing meaningful income in retirement for members compensated by the Financial Assistance Scheme and the cost to the taxpayer. I have outlined in detail the issues that the regulations will address and why the Government have decided to act. Now is the right time to correct this problem, and I ask that the Motion be approved.

Motion agreed.