Pension Schemes Bill [ Lords ] (Fourth sitting)

Published date : 05 November, 2020
It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr Robertson.

I rise to speak to new clauses 3 and 4, which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Airdrie and Shotts, for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). I should make it clear to the Minister that it is our intention to make amendments of this nature on Report, so we will hear with interest what he has to say in response to the points we make today.

On Second Reading, I spoke about the impact that section 75 of the Pensions Act 1995, which deals with employer debt, could have on an individual employer within a multi-employer pension scheme. I cited the example of the Plumbing and Mechanical Services (UK) Industry Pension Scheme, but in reality the issue could apply to any scheme of a similar nature. I appreciate that not all of us go to sleep at night and dream of the implications of section 75 of the 1995 Act, so if members of the Committee will bear with me for a moment, I will run through them.

Section 75 sets out regulations that are intended to deal with deficiencies in assets in pension schemes; those regulations have evolved and been amended since they were first introduced in the 1995 Act. The key change came into force in September 2005: any employer who left a scheme or prompted a trigger event, such as retiring or moving from being a sole trader to a partnership or a limited company, was required to pay a section 75 debt. That debt is calculated on a buy-out basis, which assumes that the whole scheme is being bought out by an insurance company, so it is a very expensive way of valuing a pension scheme. Also, part of that buy-out debt comprises the orphan liabilities of past employers, who may have become insolvent or left the scheme before 2005 but did not pay their own section 75 debts, so not only is the scheme being valued generously, but those who remain in it are left to pick up the debt of others who have been able to leave it without that burden being placed upon them.

In the case that I raised, the scheme trustees for the Plumbing and Mechanical Services (UK) Industry Pension Scheme estimate that some 60% or £1.3 billion worth of the total scheme’s liabilities are, in fact, orphan. The trustees did not apply the section 75 debt when the provision was introduced in 2005, saying that, because of the nature of the scheme, it would have been impossible to do so. During that period, they lobbied Government to change the legislation, but the employers were unaware that the legislation was not being applied or indeed that any debts were even due until spring 2016, when they became aware of that situation.

I am given to understand that that has had some pretty serious consequences for the plumbers who have since retired and who have triggered the section 75 debt. It particularly affects a small group of around 30 retired plumbers aged between their late 60s and early 90s, who retired between 2005 and 2016. Some easements were introduced to the section 75 legislation over that period, but none of them apply to this small group, because the trustees did not advise them. I am told that they had a section 75 debt until 2018, and onwards.

The individual debts that I am talking about here have a wide range—up to £1.2 million, but with the majority being in the region of about £700,000. Such debts are totally unaffordable for this group, who were unincorporated sole traders for the most part. Naturally, they and their families are absolutely beside themselves with worry about this situation. If the debt is pursued, as legally it must be, it could lead to their bankruptcy and the repossession of their homes, all in pursuit of assets that, even if they are realised, would still fail to repay the outstanding debt.

As I say, there have been some easements. Deferred debt arrangements were introduced in April 2018 as a statutory easement, to allow an employer who had triggered the section 75 debt simply to defer debt but retain a liability to the scheme. That has allowed employers to continue to trade without facing possible insolvency, dependent on the size of the debt, and it allows employers to continue supporting the scheme. However, this scheme closed to benefit accrual in June 2019. Employers who triggered section 75 before the closure of the scheme, and who continue to trade, are not able to use that easement, as it is only available while a scheme is still open. That is one of the proposals in the new clauses.

The second proposal is to amend legislation to allow the application of a deferred debt arrangement in a closed scheme environment. New clause 3 gives flexibility to waive a debt in certain circumstances, as set out in the clause, where the debt is below a de minimis level; 0.5% for the fund value is suggested, bearing in mind that is a reasonable valuation of the fund and of buying it out on a commercial basis. However, new clause 4 would extend the availability of existing deferred debt arrangements for employers who are still trading, but who do not qualify to use the existing easement at present.

Hopefully we all understand the purpose of section 75, but the obligation to apply it in this case is causing untold misery to groups of small employers who have never sought to do anything other than the right thing by those in their employ. I struggle to believe anyone would have deliberately written that legislation or set up and operated the scheme in such a way to engender this kind of outcome. New clauses 3 and 4 would allow the Minister to resolve this issue mathematically, without undermining the important role that section 75 plays in safeguarding the funding of pension schemes. It is our intention to return to this issue on Report, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s observations on how we might tackle this. If we are not to tackle it in this way, in what way—if any—can the Minister envisage it being addressed in the future?

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