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Category — Auto-Enrolment, Private Pensions and NEST

Who will help sort out this auto-enrolment pension scandal?

21 July 2017

  • Who will help sort out this auto-enrolment pension scandal?
  • Low earners losing money but don’t know it yet

I want to highlight a major pensions injustice concerning employers who choose an auto-enrolment scheme administered on a net pay basis.

Such schemes cannot add the 25 per cent bonus of tax relief to contributions of workers earning less than £11,500 a year from the employer.

Auto-enrolling these employees – mostly women – into a net pay scheme forces them to pay extra for their pension. Every £10 that someone on more than £11,510 a year puts into a pension will cost only £8 but every £10 low earners contribute costs them the full amount. So the lowest paid are paying £2 more for the same pension.

If their employer were to use a relief at source scheme instead, no one would have to pay more than £8 for their £10 of pension. But most employers would not understand the difference between choosing a net pay or relief at source scheme.

When discovering this as Pensions Minister, I tried desperately to address it but nobody was interested in helping the low earners. Officials said “It’s not much money”, which I found unacceptable.

Firstly, it may not be much money, but it could and should be theirs if their employer had chosen a different scheme.

Secondly, auto-enrolment contributions will quadruple and personal tax thresholds will rise, so the numbers of low earners and the amounts of money they are losing will just keep growing. When I was Pensions Minister I was astonished to find that even though I asked The Pensions Regulator to alert employers to the issue, they refused to listen. The first reason they have was that it is not illegal to deny low earners this money, so the Regulator could not get involved. I was so disappointed at this.

I then highlighted that the Regulator’s own template letters and website, designed to help employers choose a scheme and explain auto-enrolment, misleadingly said workers would receive employer contributions and tax relief under auto-enrolment when this was not necessarily true  if they were low earners in a Net Pay scheme. After many months I eventually persuaded it to change this but the wording was weak and fails to explain the issue clearly.

I met the people running the MasterTrust Assurance Framework, asking them to assess whether net pay schemes were being honest with employers and members about this issue as part of its seal of approval. But they too did not consider it an important issue.

I asked Treasury ministers to help. They initially replied that tax relief was being consulted on. Then I asked them to amend the rules or at least allow net pay schemes to reclaim the extra relief for their low earning members but was turned down every time. I did have one real success. Now:Pensions MasterTrust, which operates only on a net pay basis (Nest uses relief at source and The People’s Pension offers both) offered to pay the extra 25 per cent bonus to all low earners from its own resources. This was not widely publicised but it deserves high praise.

Since leaving Government, I have asked a series of Written Parliamentary Questions on this issue which have been replied to with non-answers. Ministers just continually ignore my requests to solve the problem, claim they do not know how many people it affects and that it is up to the Regulator to help and inform employers about how to choose a good pension scheme. Clearly, the current situation is unacceptable. All I can do is keep flagging it.

If or when these workers discover they have been charged more for their pensions than they should have been, what will they do? They had no control over the choice of scheme; it was arranged by their employer, who may have used an adviser or relied on regulator and Government guidelines. It is not clear the workers have any protection under the law, this hasn’t been challenged yet. But if the situation remains unresolved, I do believe this could turn into another scandal – which is the last thing pensions need. The injustice is only going to get worse. The sooner this issue is properly sorted, the better, and I would welcome help from you in pressuring for change.

July 21, 2017   No Comments

Pension Schemes forced to stop discriminating against same-sex partners

12 July 2017

  • UK pension funds cannot discriminate against same sex partners
  • Landmark ruling rightly requires pension schemes to treat all partners equally
  • Costs could run to hundreds of millions of pounds

The Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex partnerships must be fairly and properly recognised within UK pension schemes. In a landmark ruling, ( INNOSPEC VS. WALKER) the judges ruled that a pension scheme member who is married to a same sex partner must be treated the same as if they had an opposite sex partner. At last, there is clarity that pension schemes cannot discriminate on gender grounds in this way.

What has the Court ruling changed?  Until today, members who were married to someone of the opposite gender would know that their surviving partner will inherit part of their pension. Even if the member married that person long after they left the scheme, the inheritance rules would apply.  However, if the member had a partner of the same gender, even though they may have been together for decades, their pension scheme might refuse to pay a survivor’s pension on the grounds that the law only recognised gender-equal partnerships since 2005.

Will this affect all UK pension schemes? In reality, most pension schemes have already been treating all partnerships the same, but around 20% of private schemes have not yet done so and Mr. Walker, who has lived with his partner for decades, has sued the Innospec pension scheme because it refused to agree that his partner would inherit his survivor pension rights for the entire period in which he belonged to the scheme. Having had to fight all the way up to the Supreme Court, the issue has been settled and all UK pension schemes will now have to pay survivors’ pensions to same-sex partners on the same basis as they would for opposite sex partnerships.

What might this cost? Estimates suggest that the cost to private sector pension schemes could be around £100million and there will also be costs for public sector pension schemes too. Of course we will not know the precise costs because the money only needs to be paid once the member passes away and only if the  member is survived by their partner.

What other implications might there be? There could be further implications of this ruling, in that widow’s pension rights in many schemes differ from the pension rights of widowers.  In some schemes, a husband cannot inherit the wife’s pension, but a wife will inherit that of her deceased husband.  I expect this issue will now be looked at again – and the cost to public sector pension schemes could be hundreds of millions of pounds.

July 12, 2017   No Comments

Brilliant News – BHS Deal Helps 19,000 Members Get Better Pensions

28 February 2017

  • Well done to the Pensions Regulator – £360m deal to support BHS scheme
  • Members will get much more than PPF while Sir Philip pays up for future pensions
  • Regulator has worked hard to secure good structure for the deal as well as significant extra funding

I am delighted that the Pensions Regulator has managed to agree a deal with Sir Philip Green that secures over £360m for the BHS pension scheme and takes members back out of the Pension Protection Fund assessment.  Members should be better off than in the PPF and those with small amounts can choose to take a cash sum up to £18,000 and leave the scheme altogether.

What does this mean for BHS pension scheme?  This deal will bring an end to the uncertainty facing so many former BHS employees, who felt let down by their former owners and were worried about losing their pensions.  They will now be able to achieve more pension than in the PPF.

So what will happen to the pension scheme members? The members should be better off than if they had stayed in the Pension Protection Fund.  Their scheme has been in the ‘PPF Assessment Period’, which means all pensioners and anyone that has reached pension age since the company collapsed will have only been receiving the PPF level of benefits.  Under the new scheme, members will be taken out of the PPF Assessment and receive recompense for any underpayments during the past few months and then move onto the higher benefit levels of the new scheme.

What happens to the BHS pension scheme?  A new scheme is being set up that will run on outside the Pension Protection Fund, but will remain eligible for it and will still pay an insurance levy to the PPF.  The new scheme is expected to be very well funded, now that it will have access to over £360m from Sir Philip Green.  The new scheme will be run by three independent trustees, who have yet to be appointed and they will be responsible for its investments and for paying out the pensions to members.

Will all members go into the new scheme then?  Most members are likely to transfer to the new scheme.  Different categories of member will be in different positions.

  • Pensioners are all likely to transfer over to the new scheme, but if they do not do so, they will stay in the PPF and their payments will continue under PPF rules.
  • Members who are not yet at pension age are also likely to transfer, and will receive more than under the PPF.
  • Members with small pension entitlements under the scheme will be offered a cash transfer if they want it. Those who have pensions with a cash transfer value of up to £18,000, which is likely to reflect a pension income of under £10 a week, will be allowed to take their pension as a cash sum.  They will usually be best to transfer into a new Defined Contribution pension scheme and they can use the fund as they wish once they reach age 55, although keeping it for later life is usually most appropriate.

How will those who are thinking of taking the cash sum know what’s best for them?  The new scheme has provision for all these members to have access to independent financial advice, to help them assess whether they are better off keeping their money in the new scheme and taking a pension income, or transferring out.  For example, if they have plenty of other pension income, they may find the money more useful to them than a small pension, or if they want to pass on money to loved ones or are in poor health, they may feel the cash sum offers them a better option.

How is the new scheme better than the PPF?  In the PPF, members who were not yet pensioners would have their initial pensions reduced by around 10% and would lose all their inflation protection for years before 1997.  In the new scheme, all members will receive their full pension on day one, and will also receive a fixed inflation uplift of 1.8% a year for entitlements built up before 1997.  This is less than the indexation of the old scheme, but much better than the PPF would pay.  The PPF would also cap members’ pensions if they were entitled to large pensions.

Will the new scheme still be eligible for the PPF if it fails?  Yes, the terms of the deal ensure that the new scheme will still pay a levy to the PPF and will still be eligible to enter it in future if the scheme fails.  However, this is not expected to occur as the Regulator believes the extra money being paid to the scheme will leave it very well funded.

How much will the new scheme pay to the PPF each year in levies?  The new scheme may be the first one that will be assessed as a ‘stand-alone’ scheme under new calculations being consulted on by the Pension Protection Fund at the moment.  The PPF is currently consulting on a new levy methodology to reflect the fact that some schemes have no realistic sponsor but are still running on and managing their investment risks and returns to generate the pension payments required over time.

What happens to the Regulator’s investigations into the BHS former owners?  The inquiry into Sir Philip Green and his companies will now end, although there are further investigations into Dominic Chappell and Retail Acquisitions Limited.

Why is this such good news?  This really is a good news story.  I believe it is good for all concerned.

  • The members will get more money than they would have done under the PPF.
  • The Pensions Regulator has demonstrated that it has the power to force employers to pay significant extra sums if they failed to fund their schemes adequately.
  • It is good news for the PPF because the scheme will now no longer need to be supported by it.
  • It is good news for the pensions system because it sends a signal to employers that the Regulator has the power and the determination to pursue employers who underfund their pensions and hopefully it will encourage more employers to obtain Clearance before selling their pension scheme.
  • It is good news for Sir Philip Green as he no longer has the Pensions Regulator investigation hanging over him and has now kept his word to the Work and Pensions Select Committee about sorting out the pension.

It is good news for all pension schemes as it can also help to boost confidence in the regulatory system.

February 28, 2017   No Comments

Ten reasons why investing in a pension fund can be better than investing in property

4 September 2016

  PENSION PROPERTY
1 You get free money from employer – often a matching contribution to double your money No employer help with your property purchase
2 You get extra from tax relief – on top of an employer contribution can more than double your money No tax relief on money you use to buy property
3 No income tax to pay on income earned in a pension fund All rental income taxed
4 No capital gains tax to pay on assets that rise in value in pension fund All capital gains taxed on second property
5 No inheritance tax when passing on pension assets Property assets subject to inheritance tax
6 Inherited pension assets stay tax free until money is taken out Inherited property income will be taxed
7 Costs of buying pension are controlled Costs of buying property can be significant
8 Costs of managing pension usually around 1-2% a year Costs of managing property can be significant – agents’ fee, repairs, empty periods etc.
9 Pensions can invest in property funds and commercial property to spread risk Buying one or two properties has more risk than buying many properties
10 Pensions can also invest in other assets to spread risk Relying only on property is putting all your eggs in one basket

 

So what is better when saving for your retirement – property or a pension?

Pensions have many advantages:  Pensions allow you to spread the risk and also offer you many other benefits as well.  It seems a real shame that so many people, apparently even those who have the most valuable type of pensions of all, fail to understand how much they are worth.  I would like to explain just how valuable pensions are and why they would normally be the best way to save for retirement – even better than property.

You can more than double your money with a pension:  The first thing to say is that, if you are in a workplace pension and you opt out of it to rely on property, you will lose free money from your employer.  Many employers will match your own pension contributions.  So, if you earn £25,000 a year and you put 8% of your salary into a pension, that amounts to £2,000 each year.  £400 of this, however, will come from basic rate tax relief, so your own actual investment in your pension will be £1,600.  And, if your employer offers a matching 8%, then you have another £2,000 going into your pension fund too.

You put in £1600 and it can become £4000 straight away:  In other words, £1600 of your money has gone into the pension fund and you have received an extra £400 from taxpayers and another £2000 from your employer.  So, on day one, your £1600 is worth £4000.  That is more than double your money.

Even if property prices double and pension investments make no return, you could do better in pensions:  If you pay £1600 a year into a pension you will have £4000 more each year in your fund.  By contrast, if you put that £1600 into a property and even if the property price doubles, you will still only have an investment worth £3200 (and that is ignoring the costs of buying, selling and managing the property).  So even if your pension investments do not perform brilliantly, you will have extra money you would not have had when buying a property.  If your pension fund makes no returns and your property investment doubles in value, you could still be better off in the pension.

Property gains are magnified by borrowing:  The big difference, of course, is that you will usually put more money into a property in the first place and also borrow a huge amount extra with a mortgage.  So, if the price of the property increases, your gains can be magnified because the amount you have invested is much larger.  That works well when property prices rise, but there is no guarantee they will keep on going up and there is also no guarantee that the interest on your borrowings will stay low.

Pension funds can invest in property as well as other assets:  It’s also important to remember that a pension can invest in many different assets —  including property funds and commercial property. So if you think property will do well, you can include property investments in your pension fund but you can also invest in other assets as well.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket:  When investing for the long-term, it’s not usually sensible to put all your eggs in one basket. Unless you are an expert in one particular area and have ‘exceptional’ knowledge, that you believe is not available to the rest of the market, then relying only on one type of investing means you run huge risks.  A more broadly spread portfolio can reduce these risks for you.  If you already own a home, its value depends on the movement in property prices. If you then buy another property, you are doubling up.  That’s fine when the property market is strong, but there are periods when property doesn’t do well.

Property market may be in a bubble which could burst:  Quite frankly, property does have some of the characteristics of a bubble right now – the housing market has been stoked by the Bank of England pushing down interest rates to encourage people to borrow more cheaply, and there aren’t enough homes being built.  If borrowing is artificially cheap and there is a shortage of supply, then property prices are bound to rise, but this cannot last for ever.

Investing in property is very expensive:  Keep in mind, too, that the costs of buying and managing property can be quite high.  You have to pay stamp duty, and you will usually have solicitor, surveyor and estate agent’s fees too.  If you let the property, your tenants may not look after it, you will have costs of repairs, you may have periods when it is empty and you could even face court fees if your tenants prove difficult.

Pensions are the most tax efficient way to save for the long-term for most people:  You can get tax relief on your pension contributions at your highest marginal rate but you invest in property from taxed income.  Any rental income and capital gains from property are taxed, whereas pension investments are tax free.  Your pension investments pass to the next generation free of inheritance tax and there is no income tax until the money is taken out (and if you die before age 75 there will be no tax to pay at all).  With property, all income and capital gains are taxable and when you pass away your property goes into your estate and is subject to inheritance tax (although there are exemptions for your own private residence).

September 4, 2016   3 Comments

Pension consequences of QE could undermine policy intent

4 August 2016

  • Further pain for UK pensions as QE worsens deficits and increases annuity costs
  • Bank of England statement completely ignores pension impacts of its policies
  • Estimates suggest deficits now approaching £1trillion – this cannot be sustainable
  • Government needs to consider help for employers

Today’s decision by the Bank of England to cut short-term interest rates and expand the QE programme is another blow for UK pensions.  Both defined benefit and defined contribution pensions have become more expensive as rates keep falling.

Lower rates make pensions more expensive:  The amount of money that is needed to pay promised pensions over future decades depends on how much return one is expected to earn on the money set aside for pensions right now.  The lower the future expected returns, the more money must be put in today.  The cost of pensions, whether Defined Benefit or Defined Contributions, ultimately depends on the returns on gilts.  As gilt yields fall following QE, annuity rates fall and pensions become more expensive.

Rises in asset prices don’t offset rise in the liabilities so pension deficits worsen:  The sensitivity analysis shows that every one percentage point fall in long gilt yields will increase the average pension fund’s liabilities by 20%, while its asset values will only increase by around 7-10%.  Therefore, as gilt yields decline, pension deficits increase and any rise in asset prices is less than the rise in the liabilities or annuity costs.

Deficits are approaching £1trillion:  Hymans Robertson estimated that deficits of UK final salary-type schemes post-Brexit had risen to £935billion.  A further fall in interest rates as a result of today’s Bank of England announcement will see this figure increase further towards the £1trillion mark.  The value of liabilities, as measured at today’s interest rates, is well over £2trillion.

This damaging side-effect of monetary policy means bigger burdens on UK employers:  The consequences of rising deficits are that employers struggling to support these schemes face pressure to put in more money.  The more money they put into the pension scheme, the less they can spend on supporting their operations.  This undermines the aims of QE which is meant to stimulate the economy as this supposedly expansionary policy weakens the ability of the employer to grow its business.  So monetary policy that is meant to boost growth has a damaging side-effect that can undermine companies.  Ultimately, more employers may fail as pension deficits balloon.  That would mean pension scheme members enter the PPF and their benefits are not paid in full.

Trustees caught between a rock and a hard place – need to take more risk, but expected to take less:  Trustees of pension schemes, whose deficits keep rising, are facing almost impossible investment dilemmas.  They are locked into a vicious circle and struggle to break out.  If the scheme deficit has risen, trustees need to consider asking the employer to put more money in to fill the shortfall.  But if the employer has already put huge sums in or cannot afford to do more at the moment, then trustees ideally need to find other ways to reduce the deficit.  This means achieving better investment returns or reducing the benefits (which is not normally allowed under UK pensions law unless the employer is about to go bust).  So trustees would in theory need to take more investment risk, buying assets that can be expected to outperform their liabilities, to reduce the deficit over time.  However, in practice, trustees are usually advised to take less risk, not more risk, if the employer is considered less able to fund the deficit.  They are told to ‘de-risk’ by buying assets that better match their liabilities.

‘De-risking’ becomes a vicious circle that ultimately increases risk of failure:  Trying to ‘de-risk’ generally means buying gilts (or other high quality bonds or hedging), since these are supposed to better match the performance of the schemes’ liabilities.  As liabilities are calculated with reference to gilt yields (conventional actuarial basis) or AA corporate bond yields (accounting measure), gilts and bonds are considered the assets that will best match the liabilities.  But buying more gilts or bonds will, at the margin, force yields down further, especially in light of further QE (buying £50bn of gilts and £10bn of corporate bonds).  Trustees will be competing with the Bank of England for scarce assets and pushing yields even lower and their scheme deficit will keep rising – a classic vicious circle.

Need to outperform liabilities, not just match them and gilts are not a perfect match anyway:  In practice, although gilts and bonds may be a closer proxy for the liabilities than other asset classes, they do not actually match liabilities properly.  There will still be duration and inflation mis-matching, as well as rising longevity, so even buying gilts may not prevent a rising deficit.  And there is a further problem.  If the employer cannot manage to meet the deficit payments, the trustees really need to invest in assets that will outperform the liabilities, not just match them, which means taking more risk, not less.  They seem caught in a trap at the moment.

Index-linked gilt yields are negative so trustees already face deflation:  Pension schemes are facing a further dangerous dilemma in addition to the pure interest rate impact on their liabilities.  Index-linked gilt yields have been negative for some time and the more negative the index-linked yield becomes, the more impossible it is for pension schemes to match their index-linked liabilities over time.  There are no ‘safe’ assets that pension trustees can buy to match their inflation increases.  This further drives them to need to take investment risk.  Indeed, this is what the Bank of England specifically suggests it is expecting, however pension schemes have been unable to do so because they are frightened of the employer position weakening further.

 

Bank of England seems oblivious to the pension impacts of its policies:  This is what the Bank said today:  “The expansion of the Bank of England’s asset purchase programme for UK government bonds will impart monetary stimulus by lowering the yields on securities that are used to determine the cost of borrowing for households and businesses.  It is also likely to trigger portfolio rebalancing into riskier assets by current holders of government bonds, further enhancing the supply of credit to the broader economy.”  There is no mention of the effects of this policy on pension funds.  In fact, if pension funds are unable to move into riskier assets, the policy is actually going to damage growth in some cases, rather than boost it.  Weakening parts of corporate UK is hardly helping the economy.  Monetary policy is also risking poorer pensioners in future via the impact on annuity costs.  Thankfully, DC pension investors are no longer forced to annuitise too soon if they would rather wait.

 

Government must address these pension problems urgently:  The Government has given some relief to DC scheme investors with the freedom and choice reforms.  DC savers are no longer effectively forced to buy an annuity if they want to take just a small amount out of their fund.  However, there has been no such relief for employers.  If the Bank of England ignores the effect of monetary policy on pension schemes, Government and the Pensions Regulator need to take the issue more seriously.  So far, very little has been done to address the stress on employers.  I had started some work on this but it did not receive sufficient attention and is even more urgent in light of today’s announcement.

 

Trustees and employers seem frightened to use flexibilities already built into UK pension system:  The UK pension system does have significant flexibilities which could help employers and trustees cope with difficult circumstances, however there seems to have been a reluctance to use the leeway designed to alleviate these burdens.

 

Must not just help one favoured scheme:  The problems of Tata Steel and others have highlighted how many big businesses are simply unable to afford paying the full pension promises at current interest rates.  The costs have mushroomed out of all proportion to previous expectations.  The British Steel consultation proposed law changes to allow its trustees to cut members’ benefits without consent and even to make them worse off than going into the PPF itself.  I believe this would be unwise and set a dangerous precedent.  Rather than trying just one favoured employer, the Government needs to look at the whole system.  How can employers and trustees manage their liabilities in the best long-term interests of the both the members and the business in light of QE?  Too much comment seems to focus on the apparent funding levels as measured today, rather than ensuring the strength of the sponsoring employer to back the scheme in future decades.

 

In danger of making the best the enemy of the good:  Liability management exercises, scheme pooling, longer recovery plans, member consent to benefit changes and benefit streamlining are all possible methods of managing liabilities over time in more affordable ways.  Encouraging members with small entitlements to transfer to DC schemes and facilitating small benefit changes such as a statutory over-ride for schemes that need to change the inflation measure used for uprating could provide much-needed relief for many schemes.  Offering pension schemes favourable terms for investing in infrastructure and social housing projects could also provide some upside for pensions while boosting the economy.  It is time the authorities addressed the serious side effects of monetary policy on UK pensions before more schemes fail.  I was working on these issues but there was no sense of urgency, I hope that the new Government will take this matter more seriously now.

August 4, 2016   2 Comments

Pensions are too important to downgrade

18 July 2016

  • Potential dangers ahead for pensions if responsibility moves from DWP to Treasury
  • Could be threats to auto-enrolment
  • Must continue to address employer challenges in funding Defined Benefit schemes

It would seem that the role of Pensions Minister is being downgraded by the new Government.

What does that mean?

At the moment, we just don’t know, however it could be that this poses threats to future pensions and we must be alert to the dangers.  Pensions are vital for the long-term future of millions of people in our country.  We are in the middle of a major programme of reform and it needs to be guided carefully, otherwise there are dangers that pensions policy could be derailed.

What are the risks of downgrading Pensions in DWP?

Pensions Bill:  The recent Queen’s Speech contained provision for a Pensions Bill, which I fought really hard to obtain.  It is designed to protect pensions.  Currently, people’s pensions are at risk if the trust-based DC pension scheme they are saving in winds up.  I do hope the new Government will not put these important measures on hold.  Members’ pensions are not safe and the protections should have been put in place long ago, they are urgently required.  The new Bill would also introduce a cap on the exit charges on members’ funds when they want to move from one scheme to another.  At the moment, members can lose over 5% of their money just because they need to move scheme.  The new law would cap those charges at much lower levels.

Auto-enrolment:  Currently, policy responsibility for auto-enrolment lies in the DWP.  If the Treasury takes this over, there are risks to the programme.  Auto-enrolment is working really well, as millions of workers are saving in pension schemes for the first time, with the help of their employer.   We are establishing as the norm that every employer is expected to provide a pension for their staff.  This is a major change but is an essential part of the radical pension reforms that are underway.  The new state pension will have no more earnings related elements building up, so all the earnings linked retirement income must come from private pensions or other assets.  We must not let the EU referendum fallout derail this vital programme.

Defined Benefit Pension schemes:  At the moment, the DWP is responsible for our system of pension protection and there are over 11 million workers saving in Defined Benefit schemes who need a robust protection framework.  Funding levels of many schemes have deteriorated sharply, despite employers putting significant sums into them, and the Government urgently needs to address the challenges facing trustees and employers in connection with meeting their pension promises.  Work is already underway in the DWP which I had initiated last year and accelerated recently, but it is complex and needs careful handling.  A new Pensions Minister needs to engage with this work and manage the issues surrounding the British Steel pension consultation and the knock-on effects on all other schemes.

Pension Wise:  Responsibility for Pension Wise recently moved from Treasury to the DWP, to ensure all publicly-provided pensions guidance is located in one place.  As DWP was already responsible for the Pensions Advisory Service (TPAS), it made sense to put Pension Wise and TPAS together and form a new guidance body to help people engage with planning their later life income.  This was also due to be in the new Pensions Bill and I do hope it goes ahead, even if based within Treasury again, rather than DWP.  The public need help and guidance to understand how to plan their retirement income and customer satisfaction with the Pension Wise service has been very high.  The new Government must not let this be a casualty of the recent political upheavals.

Bringing private pensions policy under one roof

Last week I suggested to Number 10 that I would be delighted to help the new Government with a radical overhaul of pensions policy responsibility.  This could see all private pensions policy joined together in one place, under a Minister in the Treasury, while State Pension policy stays within the Department for Work and Pensions.  Indeed, I proposed this to David Cameron last year after he asked me to be Pensions Minister but he decided against it.

I think it makes sense for private pension savings policy to be run in one place, rather than being split across Departments.  I would have been happy to do that in the new Government but only based in the Treasury, not the DWP.  I wonder if there may be a move in that direction?

Why would it make sense?

As the new state pension means an end to contracting out, the role of the DWP in private pensions is much reduced.  Under the old system, millions of people were building a part of their state pension in a private pension scheme, paying lower National Insurance in exchange for giving up rights to part of their state pension.  This policy has ended, so the state and private pensions are now totally separate.  Therefore, it might be a good time to merge private pension policy together in one place rather than having contract-based private pensions policy resting in the Treasury, while trust-based pensions policy is made in DWP.  There are currently two different regimes, one for pension schemes set up under trust and one for pension schemes that are under contract law.  Bringing these policies together could help streamline and rationalise the rules, although there would be enormous complexity in doing so.

July 18, 2016   2 Comments

My farewell blog…

 

As most readers of this blog will know by now, I have been appointed Minister for Pensions in David Cameron’s new government.

Having spent so many years studying pensions, savings and retirement policy as an independent expert, I have the chance of working inside government to drive things forward.  It will certainly keep me busy and be a great new challenge.

Recent years have seen sweeping changes to our pensions system, changes which have started to move pensions in a positive direction for the first time in years.  I now have the responsibility of continuing and building on this momentum.

Believe me, I am aware of the hard work that lies ahead.  I want to make pensions work better, be more easily understood and more popular.  For me, pensions have always been about people, not just about money and I will always try to bear that in mind in my policy deliberations.

We must continue to ensure today’s workers can save for their retirement with confidence. Automatic Enrolment has encouraged more than five million people into a workplace pension – but we still have a further five million to go, as the system continues to roll-out.  Opt-out rates have been encouragingly low, but so are the minimum contributions and of course we will need contributions to increase over time.

This is hugely important – most of us can expect to live longer than ever before and must save for our futures if we are to enjoy our later years in relative comfort. I am aware of the challenges of making the second half of the Auto-Enrolment roll-out go as smoothly as the first, and am conscious that the particular needs of smaller and micro employers have to be considered.

It has been really encouraging that the youngest workers have been those least inclined to opt out after being enrolled. But we mustn’t become complacent – we need to do all we can to ensure protective measures are in place to cement people’s trust in their pension investments and encourage engagement.

We need to improve consumer protection and financial education to help people understand more about getting a fair deal and the value of saving. As successful as Auto-Enrolment has been up to now, we cannot just assume the job is done.

I believe passionately that the new pension freedom reforms have made an historic difference in allowing people to make the most of their hard-earned savings. They provide consumer choice for all, not just the wealthiest, rather than forcing most people into buying an annuity that may not be suitable for their needs.

I have been saying for years that we must trust people with their own money – and I believe most British savers will be responsible when it comes to making these long-term decisions.  With the help of Pension Wise guidance, improved financial education and ultimately advice, many more people can make sensible decisions for themselves. Encouraging more later life working, particularly part-time, also has the power to benefit many people if they want to increase their lifetime income.

Towards the end of the last Parliament, the Government announced that the new pension freedoms could be extended to those who already have annuities – I very much hope this will become reality.

Next April will see the roll-out of the new State pension. This long-overdue reform will see today’s complicated multi-tiered system of basic and additional State Pensions ultimately replaced with a clearer, fairer, single-tier payment.  People need to understand what is happening to the State Pension and we must try to explain it more clearly, despite the complexities of the existing system.

It will benefit many – but it is not yet fully understood.  Importantly, it will bring an immediate and significant reduction in the proportion of pensioners on means-testing.  I have long warned that we must reduce means-testing penalties, so that people, especially the poorer pensioners, are not penalised for past saving or for continuing to work longer if they wish to.  We need to incentivise private provision, rather than penalise it.

And this is all just the start. My in tray is ever growing and I can expect a busy and exciting time ahead.  Please give me some time to settle in, consider the landscape and work my way forward with the tasks that need to be done.  I will do my very best to help in as many areas as I can, but I cannot make any announcements at this stage and it is not reasonable to expect instant action.  It will take a while to assess what is best.

Due to the demands of my new role, unfortunately I won’t be able to maintain this blog for a while. But don’t expect to stop hearing from me!

From inside Government I intend to remain dedicated to championing the rights of consumers and standing up for fairness, while working closely with the industry as we all adapt to the changing pensions landscape.  Ultimately, it will benefit everyone involved in pensions if we can find ways to improve customer experience and satisfaction.

It’s an exciting time for the world of pensions and it is essential we continue the progress for today’s pensioners as well as for future generations. I will try hard to make pensions work better for people and hope to be able to make a real difference. I would like to thank all of you who have offered me your support, kind comments and warm words – I will do my best to achieve success.

May 17, 2015   4 Comments

Auto-enrolment increases pension coverage but private sector, especially women, and self-employed lagging behind

30 October 2014

  • Pension scheme membership increases as auto-enrolment starts to have an impact
  • First increase in pension scheme membership in private sector this century – but public sector workers remain the pensions aristocracy
  • 2013 saw 200,000 extra public sector workers saving in pension compared with 100,000 more in private sector
  • Still need to address low pension coverage for private sector women (only 30% contribute) and the self-employed (only 22%)
  • New pension freedoms may start to increase self-employed interest in pensions again

The latest data for pension scheme membership, just released by the ONS, show some interesting statistics.

1. After years of decline, there was a rise in the numbers of people contributing to pension schemes in 2013. Pension scheme membership reached a record low in 2012, with a massive drop from 8.2million in 2011, to 7.8million in 2012. Last year, the number increased by 300,000 to 8.1million. Of course, this figure is still below the 2011 level, but at least the declining trend has been broken. The table below shows the figures:

Total pension scheme membership
2000 10.1m
2006 9.2m
2007 8.8m
2008 9.0m
2009 8.7m
2010 8.3m
2011 8.2m
2012 7.8m
2013 8.1m

2. Auto-enrolment seems to have reversed the declining trend of membership of private sector schemes. The figures show that, for the first time this century, in 2013 membership of private sector schemes actually increased. In 2011, the number of members of private sector schemes dipped below 3million for the first time, and fell further again in 2012 to just 7.8m, but in 2013 it rose to 8.1m.

Private sector scheme members
2000 5.7m
2006 4.0m
2007 3.6m
2008 3.6m
2009 3.3m
2010 3.0m
2011 2.9m
2012 2.7m
2013 2.8m

3. However, auto-enrolment has had an even greater impact on public sector workers, with a larger increase in the numbers now contributing to pensions. The number of workers in public sector schemes had also dipped in 2012, but the impact of auto-enrolment seems to have increased membership back to the levels of 2011 with 5.3million workers contributing. Membership of public sector schemes still far outstrips that for private sector workers, with nearly 90% of workers covered, compared with much less than half of those working in the private sector. There is a long way to go before pension coverage for private sector workers reaches that of the public sector.

Public sector scheme members
2000 4.4m
2006 5.1m
2007 5.2m
2008 5.4m
2009 5.4m
2010 5.3m
2011 5.3m
2012 5.1m
2013 5.3m

4. Pension coverage in private sector still far too low – around 40% of men and only 30% of women contributing:  Between 80% and 90% of those working in the public sector – both men and women – are paying into a pension scheme, whereas in the private sector, even though membership increased in 2013, less than 40% of men and only 30% of women were in pensions. Clearly, the public sector workforce remain the pensions aristocracy.

5. The increased pension coverage did not extend to the self-employed, who continued to turn their backs on pensions in 2013, as numbers contributing to pensions declined once again. The figures are only given as percentages and only for men, but they show the proportion contributing to pensions fell to just 22% in 2013, down from 24% (a previous record low) in 2012 and way below the 62% level of 1996/97. Clearly, pensions are not of much interest to the self-employed. What could explain this? I suspect that the inflexibility of pensions is partly responsible for the lack of contributions. Many self-employed people have chosen to invest in ISAs rather than pensions, since if they need their money they can use it whenever they want. If their business needs some funding, but the money was locked into a pension, they would not be able to use it, whereas with ISAs they can. In addition, the self-employed have no contribution coming from another source. With auto-enrolment, workers receive ‘free money’ from their employer which adds to their pension and that money is only available to them if they contribute to their employer’s pension scheme. This does not apply to the self-employed of course.

Self-employed men, numbers contributing to pension
Tax year end: % of self-employed men  contributing
2006 37
2010 25
2011 25
2012 24
2013 22

6. New pension rules will make pensions more attractive in future:  The 2014 pension reforms could well herald a significant increase in pension participation by the self-employed. By removing the inflexibility of pensions, it is likely that the self-employed will look more seriously at contributing again, rather than using ISAs. Indeed, they may decide to switch some of the ISAs into pensions, due to the tax advantages. Many of those who are self-employed are perhaps also relying on selling their business to fund their retirement, however having a pension in place may be a useful diversification of their risks. The state pension reforms will give the self-employed better pension rights in future, but they will still need more than this for a decent standard of living in later life. It will be interesting to see how the trends in pension membership develop as the pension reform programme progresses. Watch this space!

October 30, 2014   1 Comment

The pensions revolution – what does it mean?

30 September 2014

So many people have been asking me about the new pension changes and what they might mean, I have put together a quick Q&A to address some of these with my comments.  Hope you find it of interest.  There are profound implications for pension products and pension savers – as well as for regulators of course, to make sure people understand what this all means for them.

  • If in good health, perhaps you shouldn’t buy an annuity before age 75
  • Look for an annuity with guarantees or value protection
  • Pensions have become the most attractive form of savings
  • This benefits ordinary savers, not just the wealthy
  • More money will go into pensions
  • ISAs may switch to pensions
  • More money will stay in pensions
  • Auto-enrolment more attractive than before
  • Pensions can pass down the generations
  • Guidance must explain the tax benefits and signpost to advice
  • FCA must ensure customers are properly protected

The latest announcement of tax free inheritance for pensions, on top of the Budget reforms already announced, will have profound implications for the future of UK private pensions.  It is not putting it too strongly to say that there is a totally different outlook for pension savers in future.  This has implications for millions of us, young or older, and it is vital that the new environment is properly explained and understood.  So much change has happened which runs entirely contrary to decades of traditional UK pensions thinking that many will find it hard to get their head around the new landscape.  Here is quick Q&A to start the ball rolling and hopefully help you appreciate what this might mean going forward.

1.        Will these reforms make pensions more attractive?

Unquestionably yes.  Pensions are the most tax-favoured and attractive long-term savings vehicle for almost all of us.  You could say pensions have become sexy – even exciting!  With the new freedom and flexibility, you can save in a pension fund, get tax relief at your top marginal rate, all gains you make are tax free and then any money you don’t use from your fund while you are alive will go tax-free to the next generation.  Even your own home suffers inheritance tax, but your pension passes on tax free.

2.       Do the reforms just benefit the wealthy?

Absolutely not.  In fact, that’s part of the beauty of the new landscape.  Pensions are now good for the average earners who can enjoy the kind of freedom and flexibility that used to only apply to the very wealthiest.  If you had huge sums in a pension fund before, you did not need to buy an annuity or be limited by capped drawdown, you could use flexible drawdown to take money whenever you wanted, and you could afford not to touch the fund before age 75 so it would pass on tax free to the next generation.  Those who had smaller amounts were denied these freedoms but in future they will be available to all.  Whether your pension fund is large or small, the Government will not restrict what you can do once you reach age 55 and everyone under 75 can pass on the funds totally free of tax, while everyone over 75 can pass on unused funds to give pensions for the next generation – which will be tax free until they are drawn down and face marginal income tax rates.  This ensures many of the advantages that the wealthiest had can now be enjoyed by every pension saver (assuming their pension company allows them to!)

3.        Does this have implications for auto-enrolment?

Yes, huge implications.  The reforms are likely to mean many more people will stay auto-enrolled and opt out rates should be dramatically lower than previously expected.  It also means we should think about auto-enrolling those earning under £10,000 as well, because they are most likely to need the extra savings. As pensions are now so much more flexible and suitable for savers, with the best tax advantages, the reforms make auto-enrolment a ‘must-have’ for many more workers.  This is likely to mean higher costs to both employers and the Exchequer than previously forecast.  Auto-enrolment is a ‘buy one get one free’ offer.  Each £1 the worker contributes immediately doubles to £2 in their pension – due to the employer contribution and tax relief. This is far more powerful than even higher rate tax relief.

4.        What does this mean for annuities?

There are several implications for annuities of the new pension landscape.

·         More annuities with guarantees, so money can pass on tax free on early death

·         More annuities with value protection, as previous sales were hampered by the 55% death tax

·         People who are in good health should perhaps delay annuity purchase to age 75

·         Standard annuity sales will fall sharply – more impaired or underwritten annuities.

Annuity sales should fall sharply, many will be better to wait till age 75 and the providers will need to offer more guarantees or value protection.  Clearly, the reforms will mean the sale of standard annuities, that has dominated the Defined Contribution pensions market for many years, should decline sharply.  This is long overdue.  Annuities have been sold to people who should never have bought them, or who bought the wrong type of product and the Regulator failed to protect customers properly.  The tax system now favours income drawdown and, because of the tax advantages of inheriting pension funds if the saver dies before age 75, there will be a real incentive to delay annuitising until later ages.

5.        Won’t people just rush out and spend all the money as soon as they can get their hands on it?

Of course, there is that risk, but firstly I trust people who have been responsible enough to save for their retirement to be responsible enough to manage their funds in later life too.  Secondly, with the latest announcement of the scrapping of the 55% inherited pensions tax, there is a real incentive now for people to leave their money inside their pension fund for as long as possible.  While any funds passed on were taxed at the penal 55% rate, there was a penalty on keeping money in pensions.  Now, in contrast, there is a real reason to hang onto your pension money as long as you can.  It grows tax free while in the pension, it’s there if you need it, but if you don’t spend it can pass on tax free.

6.        Are there implications for care funding?

Yes, there is now a much more realistic chance that pension funds can help pay for later life care needs, for which no funding has been put in place and which many more people will require.  There is a looming crisis in the funding of elderly care, with neither the state, nor the private sector having prepared for this adequately.  These pension reforms could kick-start care funding by encouraging people to leave money in their pension funds and then, if they need care, they have the money to pay for it.  The state will not pay and cannot pay for all.

7.        Does this have implications for ISAs?

Actually yes.  The fact that pensions have become so much more tax favoured now suggests many people could benefit from switching ISAs into pensions.  The ISA is not free of inheritance tax, it does not get tax relief up front, there is normally no employer contribution and the freedom to spend ISAs has now been at least partially extended to pensions.

8.       Will this benefit families?

Yes, this new pensions landscape means people can pass their pensions onto their loved ones and pension savers will know that their hard earned savings can benefit the next generation if they don’t need or use that money themselves.  The Government is providing real incentives for people to help their children and grandchildren and improve inter generational wealth sharing.  The old system would see insurance companies pocketing the unused funds of most pension savers.  Now their families can benefit instead.

9.  What does this mean for products?

We will need new types of product – annuities sold from a later age and with more guarantees, so they can be passed on to loved ones.  Different products for accumulating pensions, rather than current lifestyle funds that just assume savers will buy an annuity at a preset age.  The default will be drawdown, or keeping money invested in the pension fund, rather than buying an annuity so providers need to help savers with better returns for longer periods of time.

10.  What about the implications for guidance and regulation?

The new landscape makes guidance even more important than ever.  Explaining the tax implications of the pension saving, the implications of taking money out too soon, the tax benefits on death, the benefits of doing nothing and of leaving money invested if still working will all need to be understood.  The guidance should signpost people to full advice too.  In addition, the Regulator must make sure that customers are properly protected.  These reforms are great, but only if people can take advantage of them.  Providers must not be allowed to mislead customers into buying unsuitable products, as has too often been the case in the past.

September 30, 2014   4 Comments

Why are so many older workers rejecting free money?

28th September 2014

Huge numbers of over 60s are opting out of pensions auto-enrolment, losing their employer contribution

Budget pension reforms make pensions a no-brainer for most older workers as they can simply take the cash if they want to

Need for financial education and advice greater than ever

 

Figures just released show that nearly all younger workers are remaining in their employer pension scheme‎ after being auto-enrolled, but many older people are opting to leave.

 

According to NEST (the National Employment Savings Trust) 28% of over 60s are opting out of auto-enrolment, while only 5% of under 30s are turning away from pension saving.

 

As this week marks the second anniversary of the start of auto-enrolment, it is certainly encouraging that so many are staying in, however it is worrying that the older workers, who will benefit soonest from their pension savings, are not taking advantage of the free money from their employer.

 

So why are so many older workers deciding to opt out?  I can suggest some possible reasons:

 

  1. Fear it’s too late to put money into pensions: Many older workers may not have any pension savings at all and may feel they have left it too late.  Perhaps they have always heard that it is best to start saving early, so they feel they cannot benefit, while younger workers still have many years of saving ahead of them.  However, it’s never too late to save and auto enrolment is a very attractive proposition for most people.  Indeed, especially for those who do not yet have much pension saving, staying in auto-enrolment should be beneficial.
  2. Don’t realise that auto-enrolment means ‘free’ money:  Under the terms of auto-enrolment, every £1 that workers contribute to their pension immediately doubles to £2 (less charges) – with the extra £1 coming from their employer and the Inland Revenue tax relief.  There is no other savings product which doubles your money on day one.  Those who opt out are rejecting ‘free’ money.
  3. Don’t realise the Budget reforms mean they don’t have to buy an annuity and can spend the money freely:  Perhaps the over 60s don’t realise that the Budget changes mean they can double their money and then should be able to take the cash out and spend it after April 2015.  As they will no longer have to buy an annuity, or drawdown, they will usually be better off if they stay in
  4. Fear of means-testing penalties:  Some older people may be concerned that having money in a pension will affect their ability to claim means-tested benefits.  Certainly, before the pension freedoms announced in the Budget, this could have been an issue, but under the new regime anyone affected should be able to take their money out and spend it, and they will also have the employer contribution to spend as well, which would otherwise be lost to them, so they are better off staying in.
  5. Already have good pensions:  Perhaps many of the over 60s think they already have good pensions in place, so they don’t need any more.  However, even if they have other pensions (unless they have reached or are close to the £1.25million lifetime limit), they would normally be best advised to stay in as they are turning away free money by opting out.
  6. Distrust pensions: Perhaps the older workers distrust pensions so much, after hearing about or experiencing some of the scandals in recent years and this has put them off pensions altogether.  Younger workers may be less directly affected by these.  It is also the case that new-style pensions are much better value than many older pensions.
  7. Can’t afford pension contributions:  Some older people may feel they need every last penny of their salary and cannot afford pension contributions, however, it is difficult to imagine that so many more older people are struggling than the under 30s, where opt out rates are so much lower.  Therefore, this is unlikely to explain the large age differential in opt out rates.
  8. Don’t believe the reforms will last:  Maybe the older workers are more cynical than the young and don’t trust the Government to leave the pension reforms in place, fearing that the freedoms will not last.  They may be afraid of being unable to take the money out, or being forced to buy particular products again in future, having seen so many pensions policy changes in the past.

 

So, if they don’t trust pensions, or don’t trust Government policymakers, this could explain the high opt out rates.  It will, therefore, be important for Government and employers to help their older workers understand the benefits of pension saving and the risks of opting out of auto-enrolment if they want  to reach those coming up to retirement soonest.  Improving financial education would clearly help too.  Of course, anyone who is unsure about their position would benefit from taking independent financial advice, but for most older workers, the employer contribution coupled with the Budget pension reforms make pension savings a ‘no-brainer’.     Assuming nothing else changes!
ENDS

 

September 28, 2014   1 Comment