Pension Schemes Bill [ Lords ] (Third sitting)
Published date : 05 November, 2020
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Stringer. I am pleased to get the chance to delve further into some of the issues that were raised on Second Reading, of which this was one. I am happy to add my support, along with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts, to amendment 18.
When I spoke on Second Reading I warned of the need to be aware of unintended consequences, one of which originated outside the Bill. One that merited clear guidance in the Bill to prevent it from ever coming to pass was the issue around defined-benefit schemes.
The Minister says he does not want good schemes to close and schemes to be forced into the de-risking process. That is fine and good as far as it goes, but Ministers come, Ministers go, Ministers change their mind, yet legislation endures. I have been very impressed with the Minister’s handling of the Bill today and I do not want to see him go anywhere—
I have got a bit to go. The Minister highlighted paragraphs in the Pensions Regulator’s recent consultation, but I draw his attention to paragraph 210, which states:
“We consider that trustees’ focus should be to ensure the security of members’ accrued benefits rather than to ensure the provision of future benefits.”
Taking all that together, it is at best inconsistent. It should be obvious why we all want to be assured that schemes are funded to meet their liabilities. Nevertheless, that is a deeply worrying statement for many people, including the scheme managers and trustees. There needs to be a difference in the investment strategy between DB schemes, which are open to new members, and those that are not.
As the Minister said, there are clear differences between open and closed schemes. A scheme that is closed to new members, for example, has to have a fixed end point, and their assets need to be readily available to pay pensions. That means investing in assets where the value is predictable, which inevitably leads to investing in asset classes that have lower returns.
In stark contrast, a scheme that is open to new members sees scheme leavers replaced with new members. It does not have to sell assets to pay pensions and can continue indefinitely. To deliver the required investment returns, it needs to be free to invest in a range of asset classes, which may be more speculative and less predictable, but which, nevertheless, over the longer term, might be expected to deliver better financial results and outcomes for the members.
Again, I hear what the Minister says about the actions he has personally taken to increase the range of asset classes in which pension schemes can invest. That is all well and good, which makes it seem all the stranger that we might end up inadvertently with the unintended consequence of choking that freedom off for DB schemes, for want of a lack of clear guidance in the Bill. That is assuredly what will happen.
If we insist on ensuring the security of accrued benefits, which are not at any serious risk, we effectively begin to mandate an investment policy suitable only for closed schemes. As soon as that happens, the potential returns are restricted. The liabilities of the schemes increase overnight, potentially anywhere between £120 billion and £160 billion. The cost of contributions to the employer, potentially the employee, or both is therefore increased. Inevitably, over time—potentially a very short time—the schemes are rendered unaffordable, and we see the closure to new members of what were otherwise perfectly good DB schemes.
Clause 123 provides for open schemes to be treated differently, given their unique characteristics. Retaining the amendment made to the clause would certainly be a stronger safeguard than amendment 18. However, amendment 18 is a genuine attempt to try to find a compromise position that captures the essence of clause 123, while at the same time managing to be far less prescriptive in what the Secretary of State is obliged to do.
Some 21% of DB scheme members belong to schemes that are still open to new members. They still perform a vital role in people’s pension retirement provision, often for lower and middle-income families who have few other savings, and the matter therefore warrants the most careful attention. Amendment 18 would provide the means by which we can ensure that those DB schemes can continue to thrive and deliver for all their members, present, past and future.
I agree with the Minister when he says that there needs to be a reasonable balance between those classes of member, but legislation can be used to usefully set the parameters to guide trustees, which is exactly what amendment 18 would do, given the mixed messages from the regulator. If it is not deemed to be an appropriate compromise, I invite the Minister to work cross-party to try to find a compromise that would offer reassurance to scheme members and managers and that can definitely guarantee the future of DB schemes. Leaving it out of the Bill will not offer reassurance and, given the current mixed messages coming out of the regulator, will lead us down the path of unintended consequences with adverse outcomes for many of those who can least bear the cost.
Does the Minister accept that there is a difference between being given the opportunity to invest in those asset classes and having the freedom to invest in them, if there is a perception that people are being guided down a route of de-risking, and would not that be the benefit of setting it out loosely or flexibly in legislation, in terms of the guidance that could then be given to trustees on how those schemes ought to be managed?
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