Earl Howe debates involving the Department for Work and Pensions during the 2019 Parliament

Tue 30th Jun 2020
Pension Schemes Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage
Wed 4th Mar 2020
Pension Schemes Bill [HL]
Grand Committee

Committee stage:Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wed 26th Feb 2020
Pension Schemes Bill [HL]
Grand Committee

Committee stage:Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Mon 24th Feb 2020
Pension Schemes Bill [HL]
Grand Committee

Committee stage:Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting : House of Lords & Committee stage

Pension Schemes Bill [HL]

Earl Howe Excerpts
Report stage & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 30th June 2020

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Pension Schemes Act 2021 View all Pension Schemes Act 2021 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 104-I Marshalled list for Report - (25 Jun 2020)
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes for tabling these amendments to Clause 107 and for the helpful conversations that we have had about them in recent days.

I start by saying that the Government understand the genuine concerns that have been raised during Committee and by my noble friend through these amendments. The first point that I would like to make —I think that it is necessary for me to make it—is that, in introducing the new criminal offences, the aim is to target individuals who intentionally or knowingly mishandle pension schemes or endanger workers’ pensions by behaviours such as chronic mismanagement of a business or avoiding pension liabilities. It is not the aim to frustrate legitimate business activities where they are conducted in good faith.

The key point is the one that I made in Committee: that it is an offence only if the person intended to harm the scheme or should have known that the conduct would have that effect and they have no reasonable excuse for their actions. The decision on whether a person does or does not have a reasonable excuse and ultimately did or did not commit an offence in a particular case is a matter for the courts. However, in coming to such a verdict, the courts will have paid due regard to all the circumstances in the individual case in question. That, of course, includes coming to a view on whether the person’s excuse for acting in that way was a reasonable one. The burden of proof on that question falls on the Pensions Regulator. In other words, the Pensions Regulator would need to prove that the actions of the individual were unreasonable.

The other dimension of the issue is that it is important that, where the elements of an offence are met, no matter who has committed it, the regulator should be able to respond appropriately. Any restriction of the persons potentially in scope would create a loophole for those people to act in such a way.

Having said all that, we are aware of the concerns raised by industry and by noble Lords. To address those concerns, I draw the House’s attention to the general prosecution policy which the regulator already publishes and which sets out the matters that it considers when using its prosecution powers.

My noble friend mentioned the regulator’s guidance. The regulator has stated that it will also issue further specific guidance explaining its approach to prosecuting the new offences under Part 3. Before it does so, the regulator will consult the industry on the contents of the guidance for the new offences, and it expects to publish this guidance prior to the commencement of these provisions.

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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, for returning to this issue. We all know that there are some DB schemes with significant deficits and employers who could be doing more to clear them more quickly. Let us not forget the work done by LCP, which showed many firms paying out dividends 10 to 20 times their pension deficit payments, or the regulator’s annual DB funding statement last year, which raised concern about the disparity between dividend growth and stable deficit repair contributions.

The problem will not disappear. As more DB schemes have closed, they will soon be paying out more in pensioner payments, leaving them less to invest and with a need to de-risk their remaining investments.

The Covid pandemic is going to make things worse. The Pensions Regulator reports that, so far, only around 10% of schemes have agreed a temporary suspension or a reduction in DRCs post Covid, but more trustees and employers are in the process of discussing possible requests to suspend or reduce contributions. We all know that the full force of the economic storm has yet to hit us.

The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, mentioned the no-dividend rules for Covid business loans. The regulator’s Covid-19 guidance on defined benefit scheme funding and investment says that, if trustees face requests to suspend or reduce contributions, then they should seek mitigations. It gives an example, saying:

“All dividends and other forms of shareholder distribution to stop throughout the period of suspension and not to start again until the deferred or suspended contributions have been paid.”


TPR will still require trustees to report agreements to suspend or reduce contributions and provide information on the mitigations.

Ministers say that the regulator can chase employers if resources are taken out that should not be taken, but we know what the danger is if action is taken only after a dividend has been paid out. If the dividends are paid out by a UK employer to an overseas parent, it can be very difficult to get them back. It is entirely possible, in these difficult times, that if a company is in trouble and its parent company is based overseas, there may well be a move to repatriate assets to the home state. These amendments seek to tackle that problem not by stopping dividends or even buybacks where there is a deficit but by making them a notifiable event in certain circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, has softened his amendments, but he has still made a compelling case. Therefore, if the Minister does not want to accept these amendments, can he tell the House how he will ensure that the next BHS or Carillion scandal will not be a company with a foreign parent seeking to repatriate assets before abandoning its obligations to the pension scheme? I look forward to his reply.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, for tabling these amendments to Clause 109, which brings us back to an issue that we debated at some length in Grand Committee. It would be helpful to consider these amendments together, as they seek to make the declaration of a dividend or share buyback the subject of a notice and accompanying statement to the Pensions Regulator and trustees of the pension scheme. In the case of a share buyback, this notification would be required where the value of the assets of the scheme was less than the amount of the liabilities. In the case of a dividend, notification would be required if the amount of the dividend exceeded the annual deficit repair contribution and the amount of the annual deficit repair contribution was less than a percentage of the scheme’s deficit. That percentage would be specified by the Pensions Regulator.

I understand where the noble Lord is coming from, but I will address his concern with an explanation of Clause 109. The purpose of the clause is to make sure that the Pensions Regulator and trustees of a defined benefit pension scheme have prior knowledge about corporate transactions or events of which they would otherwise have been unaware and that pose a risk to the scheme and ultimately the Pension Protection Fund. The clause would also ensure that the trustees work with employers to mitigate the effect of such risks.

The Pensions Regulator and the trustees of the pension scheme are able to access information about dividends and share buybacks already. There are well-established processes whereby the regulator is able to get the information that it needs on dividends and similar payments as it assesses covenant strength and the ability of the employer to make contributions to deal with any deficit. Adding additional notifications of the kind that the noble Lord is suggesting is unlikely to be of any help. What it would certainly do is put an unnecessary burden on both employers and the regulator.

The regulator simply would not have the resources to deal with these additional notifications. That is not a trivial point: let us remember that it is a risk-based regulator and must focus its resources where it can do most good. We think that this focus is best directed at ensuring that recovery plans are robust. That is the best way to ensure that schemes are treated fairly. It is the strength of the recovery plan that is key here. Of course there will be occasions when dividends are paid without the regulator’s knowledge, but even if the regulator had been able to prevent that from happening, that would not help the scheme. That is because there is no requirement for the sponsoring employer to pay anything into any scheme deficit other than what is set out in the recovery plan.

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If we end up with a major dashboards mis-selling scandal, this will not be just another PPI. It will be a scandal in a market which the Government actually created by mandating the release of the pensions data of some 22 million people. I am very grateful to so many noble Lords for their support for this amendment, and I beg the Minister to accept it.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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My Lords, I begin by turning to Amendment 52, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Sherlock. We have been clear that the initial aim for dashboards is simply to present people with information about their existing pension provision, whether that be the state pension, occupational pensions or personal pensions. Giving people the opportunity to see that information in a single place will represent a significant achievement. The pensions dashboard programme published papers in April that identify the scope of this initial offer, and it announced recently that the call for input on these proposals will start in early July.

The concern raised by the noble Baronesses relates to transactions. It is worth reminding ourselves that people can already undertake all kinds of financial transactions online, such as transferring existing pension pots between providers or consolidating small pensions into a single account. However, any organisation offering such services must meet existing regulatory requirements. In relation to pension transfers, these include requirements designed to ensure that people understand the potential consequences of undertaking these transactions.

These legislative requirements arise from the Pension Schemes Act 1993 and a member’s statutory right to transfer their cash equivalent to a pension scheme of their choice. Clause 125 seeks to amend that statutory right by creating safeguards to give trustees and scheme managers assurance that such transfers are to safe destinations. I do not think that the noble Baronesses, or indeed anyone who spoke today, gave sufficient credit to those provisions. Any such functionality would also have to navigate other existing legislative requirements, including those set out by Section 48 of the Pension Schemes Act, which require members with a cash equivalent value in a defined benefit scheme greater than £30,000 to seek financial advice. Members with guaranteed annuity rates must be sent personalised, tailored risk warnings before they are informed that they must take such advice.

In addition, I ask the noble Baroness to take into account the Government’s amendments to Clause 125, which will add a further series of safeguards. By taking a regulatory power to notify members to take guidance and information where a transfer meets prescribed circumstances, selected “at-risk” members will have to pause their transfer and demonstrate they have taken action to consider the risks of proceeding. Therefore, it is not fair to portray the Government as ignoring consumer protection.

Alongside this, we have been totally clear that any organisation wishing to provide a pensions dashboard must first complete an authorisation process, overseen by the Financial Conduct Authority. Once it has been authorised, it will be subject to the existing regulatory requirements for that activity and for any other activity it has the regulatory permissions to carry out. Where applicable, this may include the new protections offered by Clause 125 of this Bill.

The decision on whether transactions will be allowed on dashboards is not one we will take lightly. First, we need to understand how users respond to initial dashboards offering a simple “find and view” service and, subsequently, what additional needs users may have where dashboards could add value. Any decision to enhance the functionality of dashboards would have to be supported by extensive user testing as well as a review of the existing consumer protections to ensure that all necessary safeguards are in place to protect the consumer. We would also need to consider the legislative implications of such actions. Any application to transfer made using dashboards would be subject to the transfer requirements set out in primary and secondary legislation that are in force at the time of the application.

I strongly believe that Amendment 52 is the wrong way to go. It would deny people the right to take control of their financial situation. It actively seeks to frustrate. It would mean that consumers, even when properly advised and informed, would have to follow a parallel track to execute their wishes. It may even go so far that it could stop dashboard providers developing useful modelling tools that could, for example, inform people of the potential benefits of increasing their contributions or the impact of increased earnings. This amendment risks stifling future innovations that could demonstrably benefit consumers. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe made that point very effectively.

As I have indicated, this amendment completely fails to take into account the existing regulatory regime under which many types of financial transaction are already regulated. The Government have been clear that we want to enable consumer-focused innovation; as I have said, we will always ensure that safeguards are progressed in line with this innovation.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked whether our proposals risk contravening any GDPR rules. I remind her that only the Money and Pensions Service and qualifying pensions dashboard providers that meet the requirements set out in regulations and operate to agreed standards will be able to connect to the dashboard infrastructure, so the request will effectively be a subject access request from an individual to the data controller to view their data. The individual’s identity will have been verified to the agreed standard level so that the pension scheme can be confident about who is making the request. Any request to search for consumers’ pensions information that is not received from the pension finder service will not be provided via pensions dashboards.

Turning to Amendments 56 and 59, tabled by my noble friend Lady Altmann and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, we agree that the accurate recording and management of pensions data is important. That is why the Pensions Regulator set out its expectations on record-keeping in 2010. It provided additional guidance in 2017 and 2018 to support trustees and scheme managers in measuring and improving their data.

The regulator already expects schemes to conduct annual reviews of their data that cover presence and accuracy, that trustees engage with administrators to identify and prioritise data for improvement, and that they report their data scores so that the regulator can monitor improvements and target its engagement with schemes. The Pensions Regulator has increased its scrutiny of scheme records and has targeted regulatory intervention based on reported data scores. Previous interventions have seen positive results.

The Financial Conduct Authority also has relevant requirements in place. Under its general compliance requirements in the FCA handbook concerning senior management arrangements, systems and controls, firms are required to

“establish, implement and maintain adequate policies and procedures sufficient to ensure compliance of the firm including its managers, employees and appointed representatives (or where applicable, tied agents) with its obligations under the regulatory system”.

As a result, when the FCA makes rules to compel schemes to provide data via dashboards, these will have to comply with this provision; we expect the rules themselves also to set out that the data must be accurate. In addition, the Financial Conduct Authority has the power to make further rules relating to data accuracy so long as it advances one or more of its operational objectives and is consistent with data protection legislation.

Alongside those requirements, the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion recently wrote to some of the largest pension schemes, providers and third-party administrators to galvanise the industry’s approach to data accuracy and readiness for dashboards. The Minister requested a status report on the quality of their scheme data and, accordingly, their plans to improve it. The Government will feed the findings into the pensions dashboards programme to support their efforts. Schemes will be required to meet a clear set of data standards to connect to the dashboard system; these will be finalised in the autumn.

In addition, the programme will work with the regulators to develop a comprehensive onboarding strategy to support schemes in preparing their data ahead of their connection to the dashboard infrastructure. These activities seek to ensure that dashboards are a success by achieving the necessary coverage and that the data supplied is accurate and clearly understood by the user.

With those assurances and explanations, I hope that my noble friend will feel able not to move her Amendments 56 and 59 when they are reached.

Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake [V]
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have supported Amendment 52. I say to the noble Earl that nothing in my amendment would deny any of the things that he listed. That is simply untrue. It seeks to say that Parliament should have the authority to clear taking transactions on to a dashboard system. The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, captured it quite succinctly: transactions are a key risk danger point and require attention in that sense.

The noble Earl does not deny that there are risks. The difference between us is that I believe that the scale and implications of those risks, and the unknown evidence that is yet to come forward from our experience of the dashboard, are such that this should not be dealt with by regulations or secondary legislation. It should be dealt with by Parliament clearing enabling legislation to allow people to transact on dashboards. That is the thrust of my amendment; it is not to deny people freedoms. This is not without precedent. It was Parliament that intruded to insist that charge caps should be applied to pension savings pots. In spite of the arguments articulated against that, the industry has survived perfectly well and everybody has gone on to thrive under charge caps on pension schemes.

In moving my amendment, I did not put forward a single argument saying that the Government were neglecting consumer protection. Ironically, a lot of the protections that the Government are introducing are to deal retrospectively with the consequences of introducing pension freedoms without a protective consumer wrap. It would be sensible not to make the same mistake twice.

The issue here is that the scale of the potential risks—the unknowns of what behaviour will be like on the dashboard—are such that, in my view, it is perfectly reasonable to say that that issue should come back to Parliament for clearance through primary legislation rather than through regulations or secondary legislation. I wish to press my amendment to a vote.

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This amendment does not prevent commercial dashboards. It simply means that they would not start engaging with consumers until the public dashboard has been running for long enough to give Parliament some necessary assurance before enacting the authorisation of commercial dashboards which the Bill permits. All we are asking for is a year’s grace before commercial firms with, in many cases, an unavoidable conflict of interest are authorised to engage consumers on a new product built on consumer data that the Government have mandated be released. I do not think that that is too much to ask.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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My Lords, there was general agreement in Committee that pension scheme members should have access to a dashboard service that is publicly owned and free of potential commercial imperatives. As we set out in Committee, the Government wholeheartedly agree that such a dashboard should be available to all users from day one, alongside dashboards offered by other organisations. We explained that the single financial guidance body, now known as the Money and Pensions Service, can provide a dashboard under its existing statutory functions, but I accept that the Government could provide further reassurance in legislation.

The government amendments reflect this commitment by placing a duty on the Money and Pensions Service to provide a pensions dashboard. The dashboard must display information from private and occupational pension schemes. These amendments also enable the inclusion of state pension information.

In addition, these amendments repurpose the provisions that were in new Section 4A(1)(b), as inserted by this clause, as new Section 4A(1A). The original purpose of these provisions, however, is unchanged. They make it clear that the Money and Pensions Service can carry out functions relating to the provision of qualifying pensions dashboard services by others as part of its pensions guidance function, including providing state pension information. This could, for example, include publishing data standards with which providers must comply.

The amendments also make minor consequential changes to Clauses 119 and 121, as well as to Schedule 9, which relates to Northern Ireland. The duty to provide a pensions dashboard will apply only once the necessary supporting technical architecture is in place and pension schemes are required to provide information to their members via dashboards. I therefore very much hope that the government amendments will be accepted when they are moved.

I will now respond to the amendments tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Drake, on the Money and Pensions Service dashboard being the sole dashboard for at least 12 months. The Government have been clear throughout that offering consumers a choice of dashboards is the best way to increase engagement. Our position on this has not changed. Allowing consumers to access their pensions information in the way that they want to is key to putting people in control of their savings.

Having a period of exclusivity for the Money and Pensions Service dashboard, as is being suggested, would seem to achieve relatively little, other than to restrict people’s access to their own information through a route of their choosing. However, what we will not allow to happen is for any commercial dashboard to be launched before that of the Money and Pensions Service. I would like to be clear that the Money and Pensions Service dashboard will be available from day one, alongside dashboards offered by other organisations.

I invite the noble Baroness to note that the Money and Pensions Service has an existing legislative requirement, in the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018, to report to the Secretary of State annually on the achievement of its objectives and functions. This report is also laid before Parliament and will provide detailed information about the development, delivery and operation of dashboards.

The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, asked me about the liability model and whether we can guarantee that it will be ready before commercial dashboards can be used. The pensions dashboard programme will develop a robust liability model to ensure that there are clear roles and responsibilities in the event of a breach. This will be in place before the public launch of dashboards.

I hope I have given reassurance that there will be a publicly owned dashboard and that there is a range of reporting requirements that allows sufficient oversight of progress, not least in making sure that the functionality which will underpin all dashboards can be relied upon. I have to say that some noble Lords rather over-egged the argument of functionality risk.

The long and the short of it is that we remain strongly of the belief that multiple dashboards are the best way to ensure that everyone can access their pensions information in the way that they desire. Therefore, I respectfully ask the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, not to move her amendment when we come to it.

My noble friend Lord Young has tabled three amendments, covering the Money and Pensions Service dashboard, a date for the introduction of that dashboard, and the verification of identity. I am glad he agrees that the government amendment fully meets his desire for the Money and Pensions Service to provide a dashboard. On providing a timetable for delivery, we are all keen to see dashboards available as soon as possible. However, it is essential to get the design of the service right, to ensure that it provides accurate information and is secure and consumer focused.

On that point, I can assure my noble friend that the pensions dashboard programme put in place by the Money and Pensions Service is taking the necessary steps to deliver the dashboard architecture. In April, it published two papers relating to data. Having deferred consultation on these papers because of the impact of Covid-19, the programme will now run a call for input throughout July and August. It is also bringing together a data working group to finalise a set of data standards and requirements by the end of the year.

The programme is also making progress on the supporting dashboard infrastructure. On 22 June, it started a six-week market engagement exercise with potential suppliers of the supporting dashboard architecture for the pensions finder service and the governance register. This will help the programme to determine the most appropriate route to market in preparation for a formal procurement process, anticipated to start in autumn this year.

Finalising the data standards and the procurement route is key to informing the timetable for delivery. However, it is essential that we do not force upon the Money and Pensions Service an arbitrary timetable set by legislation. I hope that, on reflection, my noble friend will come round to that view.

I understand that my noble friend wants to maintain momentum, and I agree with that. Alongside the annual report by the Money and Pensions Service, which I mentioned, the pensions dashboard programme has committed to publishing a progress update every six months, for the length of the programme. It will also set out a detailed timetable for delivery by the end of the year.

My noble friend also brought us back to the issue of digital identity and how a user of a dashboard is verified. In the March 2020 Budget, the Government reiterated their commitment to the creation of a ubiquitous digital identity market. To achieve this, they created the digital identity unit, which is a collaboration between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Cabinet Office.

As my noble friend rightly said, an identity verification service is an essential component of the dashboards infrastructure. It will provide the verification required to assure pension schemes—the data providers—that they are returning data to the correct user and to nobody else. The verification service must also meet the needs of users, enabling them to verify their identity without undue difficulty.

On a point raised by my noble friend about funding, I say that the pensions dashboard service, including ID verification, will be free at the point of use for individuals. The identify verification service for dashboards will be managed centrally as part of the supporting infrastructure, as I indicated. Funding options will be carefully considered as part of any proposed solution on identity.

As outlined in the progress update report published in April, the pensions dashboard programme will need to source a functioning, workable identity verification service. It is working with the digital identity unit and the supplier market to explore potential solutions for dashboards. These solutions will be based on managing and mitigating the type of risks associated with dashboards. Developing their requirements will enable the pensions dashboard programme to assess the suitability of available products against robust success criteria.

I say to my noble friend that we understand the need for progress on the delivery of dashboards; we recognise the need for a safe and secure method for verifying someone’s identity, and we understand how important this will be for the success of the dashboard concept. While I can go no further than that, I hope that I have said enough to convince him that his concerns are squarely on the radar, and that he will accordingly feel able to withdraw his Amendment 53.

Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Portrait The Deputy Speaker
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I have received no requests for noble Lords to speak, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Young.

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Moved by
54: Clause 119, page 108, line 32, leave out “any” and insert “the”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential upon the Minister’s amendment at page 117, line 6.
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Moved by
57: Schedule 9, page 177, line 33, leave out “any” and insert “the”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment corresponds to the Minister’s amendment at page 108, line 32.
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Moved by
60: Clause 121, page 113, line 16, leave out “any” and insert “the”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential upon the Minister’s amendment at page 117, line 6.
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Moved by
62: Clause 122, page 117, line 6, at end insert—
“(A1) The single financial guidance body must provide a pensions dashboard service by means of which—(a) information that the trustees or managers of a relevant occupational pension scheme are required to provide by—(i) regulations under section 238D(1)(a)(ii) of the Pensions Act 2004, or(ii) regulations under Article 215D(1)(a)(ii) of the Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 (S.I. 2005/255 (N.I. 1)), and(b) information that specified authorised persons are required to provide by general rules under section 137FAA(1)(a)(ii) of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000,may be requested by, and provided to, an individual or a person authorised by the individual.(A2) The single financial guidance body may, by means of its pensions dashboard service, provide information about—(a) state pensions,(b) basic and additional retirement pensions, and(c) state pension information relating to an individual.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the single financial guidance body (the Money and Pensions Service) to provide a pensions dashboard service to deal with information from occupational and personal pensions schemes. It also enables the body to include state pension information in its pensions dashboard service.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I beg to move.

Amendment 63 (to Amendment 62)

Moved by
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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock [V]
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My Lords, we all believe that trustees of DB schemes should have a clearly defined funding and investment strategy for insuring pensions in the long term. However, if that is pursued in a way driven by the need to protect members in closed maturing DB schemes, then schemes with strong covenants open to new entrants risk being swept up in an approach that is wrong for them. As closed DB schemes increasingly mature, the regulator will expect them to de-risk and reduce their deficits. However, if that approach is applied in a blanket form it will force some open schemes to de-risk prematurely, putting pressure on employers and, in the railway scheme with its shared-cost basis, on employees too. Given all the concerns expressed, will the Minister accept this amendment?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for her amendment, which touches on a number of important factors to be considered in the development of secondary legislation, including the factors that it lists. I say immediately that I agree that these are all important factors to take into account when developing secondary legislation for defined benefit scheme funding. However, we do not need an amendment to do that. The amendment includes factors that are all taken into consideration during the whole process of framing policy, legislation and guidance.

One of the greatest strengths of our scheme-funding regime is that it operates on a scheme-by-scheme basis because every scheme is different, and it would be unhelpful and inflexible to treat them all the same. The measures in the Bill build on that approach, as will the secondary legislation. The existing scheme-funding legislation has been drafted to ensure that it is flexible enough to apply to all types of defined benefit scheme—for example, whether open or closed. Equally, the scheme-funding measures in the Bill are flexible enough to apply to all types of defined benefit scheme.

In the protecting defined benefits White Paper we were clear that there are a number of examples for suitable long-term objectives and that running on with employer support would be a reasonable course of action for an open scheme. Whether or not the strategy for ensuring that benefits can be provided in the long term is suitable will depend on the specific context of a particular scheme. Additionally, we entirely accept that schemes with different liquidity profiles and maturity will be able to take different trajectories. This is, and will remain, fundamental to the scheme-specific approach. So I assure the noble Baroness and the House that any regulations will also be formulated with considerations such as those outlined in the amendment in mind, where appropriate.

The big danger with an amendment of this kind is that it creates inflexibility. It remains our aim that the scheme-funding measures in the Bill do not change existing flexibilities but, rather, seek to make best practice universal and ensure that all schemes are planning for the long term. It is good practice for all schemes, including open schemes, to set a funding and investment strategy.

My noble friend Lord Young asked whether I could commit to a meeting along with officials to discuss these issues. Yes, I am happy to do that, and if schemes have concerns with what TPR is proposing they can engage with the current consultation. The Pension Regulator’s current consultation on the defined benefits funding code includes a twin-track compliance process that takes account of scheme and employer circumstances. Indeed, the current consultation has a full chapter on open schemes, and I encourage anyone interested to contribute their views.

Regulation-making powers exist precisely to allow the system to be calibrated effectively to ensure that this balance is struck. While the noble Baroness’s amendment reflects a number of factors that are considered while developing policy, we do not need to specify those in primary legislation and indeed, as I hope I have indicated, it would be unhelpful to do so. We need to leave room for the flexibility that I have emphasised; we must leave enough flexibility in the system to allow it to react effectively to future changes. Indeed, in the light of the current social and economic climate, it is very clear that the economic shape of the future is unknowable.

I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise from what I have said that the Government’s approach is fair and proportionate and that she will accept my assurance that appropriate flexibilities are, and will continue to be put, in place. On that basis I respectfully urge her, and urge her with some emphasis, to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted [V]
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My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in this debate. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for signing the amendment, for making their contributions and for speaking to the Government. It is clear to see that there is support for the amendment from across the House, and I hope that it is also clearer to everyone why preservation of open DB schemes is in the public interest. We are, in fact, in a rather strange situation where the Minister is in agreement with the policy; it is in government policy, but yet there is a significant danger from what the Pensions Regulator has actually said. That is the sole reason why there needs to be something on the face of the Bill that confirms what is government policy.

The Government have a further opportunity to amend this Bill in a way that they consider is better than my amendment and give guidance in a different way. I would be happy to help, but we have run out of time and I have not heard a suggestion that something will actually be presented at Third Reading. This House does not have any more opportunities with this Bill, and I cannot see anything coming down the track to give us another opportunity that would be in time to make a difference with regard to the Pensions Regulator’s obvious position.

This is not a new argument: I have spent 10 years in Brussels arguing the toss on these things, on the difference between IORPs and Solvency II, and I know where the pressure comes from the former FSA—now the FCA. Part of this Bill, on CMP schemes, is fixing a problem for one newly privatised employer. Why dump others who have found good ways to make their DB schemes flourish and last? If the Government do not make it clear, that is what will happen: they may well end up being dumped.

In the first group of amendments, the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, said that she did not want CMP schemes to undermine DB schemes. Without this amendment or something like it, they may well have nowhere else to go. This is not a nice-to-have amendment; it is vital. The issue should not be swept into the corner for these pension schemes to die quietly, and I wish to test the view of the House.

Pension Schemes Bill [HL]

Earl Howe Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 4th March 2020

(4 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Pension Schemes Act 2021 View all Pension Schemes Act 2021 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 4-IV Fourth marshalled list for Grand Committee - (2 Mar 2020)
Lord McKenzie of Luton Portrait Lord McKenzie of Luton
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My Lords, this issue has been rumbling around for far too long and it is time to try to get a solution to it, particularly, as many noble Lords have explained, because of the pressure that the NHS would have been under anyway but for the recent crisis. My noble friend Lord Warner made a strong case with his proposition and we would certainly like to reflect on it. I know that the problem is that lots of people have reflected from time to time on a possible solution. That reflection goes on, but we do not yet have a solution. But Report on this Bill will be coming up shortly, and of course we have a Budget of some sort not far in the distance.

I have a couple of questions. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Warner or the Minister can help with them. Was the one-off payment that the NHS made to cover the annual allowance taxable, and what might the consequences of that be? Under the scheme-pays arrangement, as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, hinted, if the problem is the penal interest rate then what is to stop those rates being adjusted, and who controls them?

We also need to bear in mind in all this is that these rules, unless I misunderstand them, have general application in the tax system. We need either to find a way of having some special arrangements or to accept that the adjustments we make here would have to be run for the tax system generally. We will need to work through the consequences of that. I am conscious that this contribution has not added one bit of sense to a practical solution, which is what we need to reach. Maybe, at the end of the day, we simply need to rank the solutions that we have on the table and choose the best, even though that may not be optimisation.

I am sure we all remember the pressure about this—I certainly remember pressure from the old Luton and Dunstable Hospital about it—and the real adverse effect that it causes on the delivery of services. We cannot continue to allow that to go forward; we simply have to drive through a solution to this. That is the challenge; presumably, the Treasury has ultimate responsibility for meeting it. But if it will not then we should, with the help of my noble friend Lord Warner and his expertise in these areas.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, the amendment from my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe would commit the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to review the tapered annual allowance on tax-relieved pension savings and require the Secretary of State to set out how pension schemes could mitigate any adverse effects of the taper. On the other hand, the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Warner, would commit the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make regulations to require the NHS pension schemes to reimburse members for pension tax charges and, in particular, annual allowance charges.

I will set out where matters currently stand on this. First, in recognition of the impact that the tapered annual allowance is having for some doctors this year, NHS England has announced—as has been mentioned —a special arrangement for 2019-20 only, which doctors in England can use to ensure that they will not be worse off as a result of taking on extra shifts this tax year. This arrangement allows senior clinicians to defer an annual allowance charge through scheme pays. Their NHS employer will make a contractually binding commitment to pay a corresponding amount on retirement, ensuring that they are fully compensated in retirement for the effect of the scheme-pays deduction on their retirement income.

Health is a devolved matter. This special arrangement applies only to England, but we are aware that the Welsh Government and NHS Scotland have also put arrangements in place for the current tax year.

The Government most certainly recognise that urgent action is needed to resolve the pensions tax issue, which has caused some doctors to turn down extra shifts for fear of high tax bills. We are committed to ensuring that hard-working NHS staff do not find themselves reducing their work commitments due to the interaction between their pay, their pension and the relevant tax regime. That is precisely why the Government are taking forward their manifesto commitment to carry out an urgent review of the pensions tapered annual allowance, to make sure that doctors spend as much time as possible treating patients. This builds on the Treasury’s review into the effect of the tapered annual allowance on public service delivery, announced last August. The Government have announced that these reviews will report at the Budget on 11 March.

I understand that the ongoing reviews have received evidence from the British Medical Association, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and other representative organisations from across the public and private sectors. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury has held round-table discussions with key health sector stakeholders, as well as representative organisations across the public sector. The evidence provided will ensure that the Government can consider fully the impact of the tapered annual allowance and its effects on the NHS and other public services.

The amendment from my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe would have the Government commit to yet another review of matters relating to the tapered annual allowance. I hope she will accept that there is no need for a further exploration of this matter when the two reviews are ongoing and have not yet concluded, especially as those reviews will report shortly.

The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, would commit the NHS pension scheme administrators to reimburse their members to the extent they had incurred an annual allowance tax charge. The practical difficulty with this, which I am sure the noble Lord does not intend, is that reimbursement from the scheme for tax charges could trigger an unauthorised payments tax charge for the member and a scheme sanction charge for the scheme. Noble Lords will appreciate that this is a very complicated area of tax law and, as I have said, could result in further unforeseen tax charges arising.

The noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord McKenzie, referred to the interest rate being applied in this area. Perhaps I could just explain the background to this. HMRC rules require that when scheme pays is used to pay a tax charge, an actuarially fair reduction is made to the value of the pension. The discount rate used to value this reduction for public service pension schemes is the SCAPE discount rate plus CPI. The SCAPE discount rate reflects the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts for long-term GDP growth in line with established methodology. Due to recent changes to the SCAPE rate and the CPI, the scheme-pays discount rate has fallen in 2019 to 4.8%.

My suggestion to my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, is that it is preferable to wait for the outcome of the two reviews, which are ongoing but have not yet concluded. As I mentioned, they will report shortly, on 11 March. Ultimately, this is a matter for my right honourable friend the Chancellor. I am sorry to have to leave matters in the air, but I hope that my noble friend and the noble Lord will take away from this a good degree of reassurance that the Government are taking seriously the question of what impact the tapered annual allowance is having on NHS pension scheme members and that reviews into this matter are already under way.

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Lord Warner Portrait Lord Warner
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I just want to amplify the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. Those of us who have been around in government for some years know that the announcement of review reports in Budgets do not necessarily mean that anything in those reviews will be rapidly implemented. My suspicion would be that any such reviews would have a longish period of consultation and would not appear in the next finance Bill—that is a likely outcome. Building on what the noble Baroness said, I need to go back to my clients—if I may put it that way—who will want to know what the position is. If I prove to be right over what happens on 11 March, would the Government be willing to consider something along the lines of buying two to three years for the NHS doctors? Will they help me get the wording right, so that it does not fall into the elephant traps that the Minister has set out? When we get to Report, we cannot just leave this; we have to come back to this issue with some credible solution. I would be delighted if the announcement on 11 March delivered a quick response, but if we do not deliver a response that covers the next two financial years, we will put the NHS in great peril.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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My Lords, my answer to my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, has to be exactly the same as that which I have already given. I can do no other than urge all noble Lords to wait for the Budget announcement. I cannot comment on what ideas the Chancellor has in front of him on this issue. Those ideas may or may not include those that have been articulated by my noble friend and the noble Lord—I do not know. I suggest that we get past next week and then take stock. No doubt noble Lords will consider how best to approach this on Report, if they feel that to be necessary.

Baroness Janke Portrait Baroness Janke
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The Minister said that these two reviews will be reported in the Budget. Is he talking about the intention to conduct a review or saying that the outcomes of reviews that have already been conducted will be announced in the Budget?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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The reviews are under way. They have not yet been concluded, but the conclusions will be announced on Budget Day.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe
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My Lords, we have had a good debate and I think we have made it very clear that action is urgently needed in the NHS area. It goes wider, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said, but my amendment was a probing amendment—of the kind that I could get through the clerk—about these problems in the NHS, particularly now that we have the added threat of coronavirus. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, put it very well. It is an own goal lurking in the bureaucracy, although if you look on the internet it is quite easy to find the scale of the problem.

Doctors are having to pay to work and can hit a tax cliff-edge, as the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, said—through no fault of their own, it seems to me—and are not able to forecast exactly when that cliff-edge might occur. It is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. My noble friend Lady Altmann, with her forensic knowledge of the sector, has pointed out that the problem is now some two years old and that the Government made a promise to resolve it. As the Deputy Leader made clear, we must wait to see what the Budget says, but I would like to be clear that I think all of us will want to return to this issue if we feel that we have not made progress in the Budget on 11 March. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I want to ask a few questions on the back of that. I thank my noble friend Lady Drake and the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, for raising these issues. It is good to hear some attention being given to the fact that we have a significant problem about women and pensions. I would have liked to see the Bill take the opportunity to do something for the women born in 1950s who lost out so much when the state pension age was raised so sharply. Given that it has not done that, at least the calls for review may give an opportunity to look at the wider range of issues.

The statistics we have heard are really quite stark. If there is that huge a gap in pension wealth between men and women, the situation will only get worse. It is clearly something that the Government need to do something about.

I want to pick up on a couple of specifics. One is the issue of people with multiple jobs below the earnings threshold. This is the point at which I miss most acutely my friend Lady Hollis of Heigham, who raised this at any given opportunity. I feel that her memory is forcing me to do so now, otherwise I could not go back to my office and sit down with any peace. I ask the Minister to comment on that. We see people with multiple jobs—many are women, of course—none of whom make the threshold but who would be over the threshold if their incomes were added up, not getting into auto-enrolment. I worry that this group will keep rising as a result of part-time working and zero-hours contracts. Even the DWP, for example, encourages those on universal credit to take extra jobs to top up their hours or income. What are the Government doing about this? Do they have a sense of the scale of the problem and the direction of travel?

Secondly, I want to say a word about my noble friend’s case on carers. Clearly, women are more likely to work part-time because of caring responsibilities. That is a clear issue for public policy. A society needs women’s reproductive capabilities and their caring work. Women, in turn, deserve to be able to live adequately in retirement. I was delighted to hear my noble friend detail how we got here, not just because I probably have more of an appetite for social security detail than is strictly socially acceptable. If we do not take the time to work out how we got here, we will lose this in future. Those rights were hard-won. It took a long time, step by step, to get the caring responsibilities of women recognised in all parts of the state pension system; then they somehow got lost in the Government’s reforms. I am sure that that was not the intention and I have no doubt that the Government will come back and say, “Yes, but people will get these bigger amounts and more of them will get a full pension”, but that makes no difference. One would get those whether one was a carer or not. They have still lost any recognition of those caring responsibilities in the second state pension. Have the Government looked at the idea of a carer’s top-up, which has been around for a while? If so, what is their response to it? If they do not like it, what is their proposal for addressing this issue?

On Monday, we discussed in Committee Amendment 78 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. It recommended that a member of a scheme should not be allowed to use the pension freedoms to transfer out without the consent of his or her spouse or civil partner. I asked whether the Minister would go away, talk to the department, take some advice and return to it during today’s debate, which she kindly agreed to do. Can the Minister give us a reaction? Has the department established that there is an issue, and what is it doing about it? That would be really helpful.

My noble friend Lady Drake said the gender pay gap will not close until 2050 and pension parity will therefore not be reached until something like 2100. We just cannot wait that long. This is a matter of public policy, economics and societal need, but it is also a basic issue of justice. What are the Government going to do about it?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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My Lords, the amendments tabled in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Drake, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, all concern automatic enrolment into workplace pensions.

Amendment 87 would lower from 22 to 18 the minimum age at which a qualifying worker would be eligible to be automatically enrolled by making a change to the Pensions Act 2008.

Amendment 88 would require the Secretary of State to lay a report on the effectiveness of our pension reforms within six months of this Bill becoming law. That review would mandate government to consider the minimum age at which qualifying workers must be automatically enrolled, the minimum level of pension contributions and whether existing legislation offers sufficient opportunity for low-paid workers to save for retirement. The Secretary of State would then have to make a recommendation about whether to bring forward new legislation in the light of its findings.

Amendment 95 would make changes to the criteria for a qualifying worker in automatic enrolment, known as a jobholder. These would lower the minimum age for a worker to be automatically enrolled from 22 to 18, abolish the £10,000 automatic enrolment trigger and make pension contributions payable from the first £1 of earnings.

Perhaps I may begin with the proposed changes to the automatic enrolment criteria. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, would abolish the £10,000 automatic enrolment trigger. The Government review the operation of the trigger annually under the statutory automatic enrolment thresholds review. That approach means that a range of factors can be assessed, including affordability for employers and whether it pays to save for individuals. Since 2014-15, we have frozen the trigger at £10,000, which has expanded coverage each year due to wage growth. In the tax year 2020-21, this will see an extra 80,000 people brought into pension saving, of whom around three-quarters will be women. This is surely one policy area where we should aim to ensure that we proceed on the basis of sound evidence. We do not have evidence at this time that would support the abolition of the trigger. So, I am afraid that the Government cannot support this amendment.

Turning to the amendments in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, which would reduce the minimum age to 18 and require pension contributions to be paid from the first £1 of earnings, the Government’s 2017 review of automatic enrolment—Maintaining the Momentum —has already set out our next steps in this area. The core proposals are a reduction in the minimum age for being automatically enrolled to 18 and the removal of the automatic enrolment lower earnings limit.

Our review involved extensive engagement with interested parties, including consultation, and was supported by an expert advisory group. Its conclusions were robust and remain correct. However, we have also been clear that these ambitions must be subject to learning from the contribution increases and finding the right approach to implementation. The timetable cannot be forced without risking both the consensus that we have achieved and the very significant policy achievements that have, rightly, been lauded across this House. Therefore, again, the Government cannot support these amendments.

I turn now to Amendments 90 and 91, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and Amendment 96, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Janke. They relate to the gender pensions gap and automatic enrolment. Since the introduction of automatic enrolment, workplace pension participation for all women employed full-time in the private sector— not only those eligible for automatic enrolment—has increased from 35% in 2012 to 83% in 2019. This is now the same as the participation rate for men, compared with 2012 when the participation rate for men was six percentage points higher. Our aim remains to increase the level of retirement saving across all groups. The 2017 review ambitions strengthen the framework of workplace pension saving for lower-paid workers, many of whom are women working part-time. As I have already made clear about the implementation, we will remain guided by evidence.

Amendment 90 would require the Secretary of State to undertake a review within six months of passing the Bill. The review would consider how to legislate to provide automatic enrolment contributions to people with caring responsibilities as parents or carers, with reference to a target group.

The new state pension system—introduced for people who reached state pension age from 6 April 2016 onwards—took forward the existing national insurance crediting arrangements. These included the credits brought into effect by Section 23A of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. The majority of people providing care and those who build a qualifying year for their state pension through the carer’s credit are women. The design of the new state pension means that, on average, women, those in lower-paid work and self-employed people receive higher outcomes than under the previous system.

More than 3 million women stand to receive an average of £550 more per year by 2030 as a result of the recent reforms. Women benefit most from the new state pension. Average weekly state pension payments for women are £152.44 under the new system, compared with £135.24 under the previous system. Outcomes are projected to equalise with those for men more than a decade earlier than they would have done under the previous system.

Under the system that operated from 2010 to 2016, people who were caring for more than 20 hours a week could claim the carer’s credit for additional state pension in addition to building qualifying years of the state pension. The full rate of the new state pension is more than £40 a week higher than the full basic state pension. As a result, unless someone had received carer’s credits for the majority of the 35 years of national insurance needed for the state pension, it is unlikely that they would have been in a better position than they will be now under the new state pension.

A key objective of the new state pension was to increase outcomes for women and lower-paid earners, accelerating the equalisation of state pension outcomes for men and women. The new state pension is successfully achieving these objectives. The settlement made in 2016 is building a clearer, simpler foundation for people’s private pension saving and we do not intend to reopen it.

I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, is concerned that parents and carers who are not working will miss out on automatic enrolment. Most parents and carers will work before or after periods of caring, or will combine part-time work with caring. The introduction of automatic enrolment has helped workers to build on the foundation of the state pension, while implementation of the 2017 review measures will enable them to build up more savings when they are working, improving their financial resilience in retirement. The amount being saved would be transformative: a national living wage earner with a 10-year career break could see an 88% increase in their pot size at retirement.

Amendments 91 and 96 would require the Secretary of State to conduct a review within six months of the Bill becoming law, concerning the sex equality impacts of the current framework. I always read amendments carefully but, if I may speak on a slightly lighter note, Amendment 91—tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake—shows how important it is to read to the end of every sentence. When I first looked at it, I thought that it sought to ensure that the Secretary of State conducts a review of differences between men and women, which, it struck me, could be rather a lengthy exercise—but that is not the case at all. If one reads the amendment in full, it is a model of clarity in referring to a number of specified groups and I want to be serious in addressing it.

Amendment 91 would require the Secretary of State to make recommendations on how legislation and policy could correct any inequalities in automatic enrolment. Amendment 96 relates to the impact of public policy regarding pension schemes on women and the action being taken by government to close the pensions gap between men and women, with recommendations for possible further legislation.

The Government already carry out and publish a range of analysis and evaluation in relation to these matters, and benefit from valuable external evidence. The department currently evaluates the gender impact of changes to automatic enrolment policy on participation—in our annual thresholds review, for example, where this year we estimated that three-quarters of the employees made eligible by the freezing of the trigger were women. We measure and publish statistics on participation rates by gender. We carry out regular monitoring of the rates of stopping saving by gender. We also draw on a wide range of evidence across and outside government on the gender pensions gap, while working closely with the Government Equalities Office.

All that should, I hope, indicate to noble Lords that this is not a matter that we will just let drift and then monitor at some point in the future. We do so regularly as we go along, and in some detail. Outside of DWP’s evaluation of automatic enrolment—AE, if I may call it that—data and analysis of the gender pensions gap is produced from various sources across government. We will continue to draw on this evidence alongside our developing evaluation of AE, post phasing, to assess the impact of AE on the gender pensions gap.

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Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake
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I want to take the first opportunity to come back on this because I am conscious that a lot of people are interested in this debate.

I am a little disappointed that the major part of the Minister’s contribution was a bit of a push-back, saying that the Government are all over this and that this is fine when evidence for that is not there. He did become more conciliatory at the end; I hope that the department find a way to bring together an eclectic group of people.

I simply disagree with some of the things that the Minister said. In reference to the small pots, the DWP did a great deal of work on the earnings threshold. It was set at a much lower level based on the DWP’s work, though perhaps not under the current Administration. In the review that led to that threshold going up—originally, it would have gone up to as high as £12,500 if a stroppy group of Peers had not turned up every time automatic enrolment earnings threshold regulations came before the House; in the end, somebody waved the white flag and said, “Oh, freeze it, we can’t face that lot every year”—the reason given, which is on the record, is that if you take it lower than £10,000, it produces small pots, which are inefficient to the industry. Well, that is irrelevant. This is a piece of public policy for mass coverage. That is what made me so angry. It was not based on a gender analysis; it was based on inefficiency in the industry. I invite noble Lords to go back to the report that gave the reason for raising that earnings trigger. There is evidence there. It may be that more modelling or more debate about the behavioural impact of coming significantly below the trigger is needed, but that work was done by the DWP. It may have a different view now but its view a few years—perhaps 10 years—back presented the evidence in a different way.

I do not disagree with the Minister that automatic enrolment has had a real benefit for women—if they are in the eligible population. If they are not, they cannot be among the people gaining from the upside of auto-enrolment. Many carers are precisely the people who are not in the eligible population.

I entirely accept that for a lot of women, an absolute improvement arose as a result of the new state pension, but the pension gap—the pay gap—is about relativity. If you give a man a pay rise of £10 and you give a woman a rise of £5, you can stand up and assert, “The woman is £5 better off: let us celebrate!”. What you have missed is that the pay gap has increased, because the man got £10. The benefits of the single state pension improve the relative position of a lot of people, not just the low-paid but huge numbers of people right across the public sector in DB schemes and generous DC schemes who, for a most modest increase in their national insurance, got that improvement in the state second pension together with the benefits of auto-enrolment or their defined benefit pension system as well. Therefore the relative position of carers was disadvantaged. Yes, their absolute position over a certain period—or after a certain period, although that is not the case—has improved, but the relative relationship did not, because everybody had that benefit from the reform to the state second pension.

I do not want to dwell on that, but there is a community out there who, if I did not do them justice and push back, would say, “Jeannie, why did you just accept those arguments?” I take the Minister’s final remarks about working for the Government. There are groups out there in industry, employers, academics and gender groups who want to work this out with the Government. I hope that the Government can find a way fairly soon to bring together a working group, or whatever. There is a feeling, “How does one communicate to the Government the growing feeling on the gender pension gap?” I felt that I had to push back, because there was a slightly dismissive approach that there was no gender pension gap problem, and there is.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I hope that the noble Baroness will not go away with that impression. We are aware that there is a gap to be bridged. The key point I would ask her to reflect on is that, despite the desire to go faster in this area, there is a risk in doing so. We have learned lessons from the phased approach that we have already adopted. It was the right approach. The gradual approach brought everybody on side. We gathered evidence in the process; we are still gathering that evidence, and the evidence-based approach is the other watchword to bear in mind.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock
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I will follow up a couple of questions that I asked the Minister: one was about mini-jobs, and I do not think that he responded to the other—I am sorry if I missed it—on the issue of spousal consent and pension freedom sharing. In Grand Committee on Monday, we were having a conversation about this. The Minister pushed back quite hard. I suggested that she go back to the department to establish whether there was a problem, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott said:

“The suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is very helpful. I would be happy to do that before we come back to this on Wednesday”—[Official Report, 2/3/20; col. GC245.]


The reason I suggested that is that I knew we were going to have a debate on women’s pensions and therefore we could have it informed by some information. There is not much point in our having assurances if they do not happen. Is there anything to be said on that?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I understand from officials in the Ministry of Justice that there has been a relatively small number of cases where the pension scheme member has taken advantage of the pension freedoms to act in a way that frustrates the intention of an attachment order. However, I would like to establish what evidence there is of the scale of the wider problem, as outlined by my noble friend Lady Altmann and the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, in our debate on Monday, before deciding on the appropriate government response. I can tell the noble Baroness that my officials will work with others across government to gather the available evidence.

Baroness Janke Portrait Baroness Janke
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I thank the Minister for his assurances and for the information he gave. I am sure that the Government want to pursue the evidence-based approach, but the actual situation is very hard for many women at this moment. I welcome his offer to work with the Government on this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, said, many groups will be interested in doing so; I hope that we can engage them in positive working on this issue.

A much larger proportion of those now in pensioner poverty are women because their caring responsibilities were never represented in the past. I feel that there has to be a recognition of the current situation while agreeing that we must move forward and take people with us on this.

On the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, it is not only a question of spousal consent to an attachment order. It is often not possible to make a pension settlement because it takes place before the process reaches that stage. Spousal consent is essential because, as others have said, once the money has gone, it is extremely difficult to recover it. The ABI has written a briefing on divorce and pensions; I recommend it to the Government. Pensions in divorce is another issue that is extremely important to women.

Again, I thank the Minister for his response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton Portrait Lord McKenzie of Luton
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My Lords, I, too, support this amendment. We should congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, on the diligence with which she has persisted on this matter for quite a long while. As she hinted, she was responsible for convening an industry group that spent a lot of time digging into this to make sure its focus was right.

The reality is clear. There are two systems giving tax relief and no reason in principle why they should not both deliver the same result. One does not for low earners at the moment. Which of the two systems you are in depends on your employer’s choice. That simply cannot be right. As the noble Baroness said, there are ways of dealing with this. I understand that the Treasury has set its face against that to date. Of course, for the Treasury, the downside is that providing a bit more tax relief means having a little less revenue. However, we are talking about the lowest paid, who are being disadvantaged by this. It is about time that this was brought to a halt.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Altmann for her amendment. I am well aware that she is a passionate and long-standing campaigner on the issue of lower-paid workers automatically enrolled into a workplace pension who may not benefit as much as other lower-paid workers for their pension saving.

As my noble friend will know—I hope she will not mind my saying this en passant—pensions tax relief is a matter for the Treasury, with the differing treatment of people in net pay arrangements and relief at source pension schemes determined by the Finance Act 2004 which, strictly speaking, is outside the scope of the legislation before us. That does not prevent me giving her as full an answer as I can.

Automatic enrolment legislation defines which qualifying workers are to be put into workplace pensions by reference to their age, earnings level and their being working or ordinarily working in the UK. I appreciate that this is essentially a probing amendment and that the precise wording is of secondary importance, but its reference to the low paid is not a definition recognised in the Pensions Act 2008. It would make it very complex and burdensome for employers accurately to identify the group to be covered by the proposed regulation-making powers.

Automatic enrolment has always sought to balance its core aim of helping working people build up their retirement savings with an implementation approach that recognises the costs and administrative burdens that will inevitably fall on employers. We are mindful that those duties must be proportionate and restricted to the minimum necessary to achieve our policy objectives. That is why pension scheme choice under automatic enrolment is reserved to the employer, who is required to use a scheme that meets minimum quality standards set out in legislation. Tax relief is only one of the factors that an employer should be considering when choosing a scheme for its employees, alongside whether it will accept all its staff, how much it will cost for the employer to administer and whether it will work with the existing payroll systems.

The employer’s decision will be informed by detailed guidance provided by the Pensions Regulator via its automatic enrolment compliance website, including information about the tax implications of different types of scheme. We should remind ourselves that there is guidance on the Pensions Regulator’s website to help employers understand the impact of scheme choice on lower earners below the personal allowance. I am well aware of how much assistance my noble friend gave on this when she was Pensions Minister.

Consequently, the current legislative framework is not set up to allow government to impose broad, undefined requirements on pension scheme trustees, managers or administrators in the way proposed by the amendment. Employers have duties under automatic enrolment, and they select a pension provider from the marketplace, based on their legal obligations towards qualifying workers and the commercial needs of the organisation.

The suitability of an automatic enrolment scheme is determined primarily through statutory quality requirements. Many employers will choose a master trust scheme, which is subject to an additional regulatory framework. All automatic enrolment schemes are registered pension schemes and their members are further protected by the broader legislative framework for occupational and personal pension schemes.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton Portrait Lord McKenzie of Luton
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I heard the Minister’s reply, which seemed a recipe for no action—not this year or next. Given all the hard work that has gone into developing thoughts on this, that does not seem fair. If we are saying that the legislation—or the regulation—is not fit for purpose as it is, why do we not change it? Whatever happened to taking back control?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I promise that nothing I said was intended as a recipe for no action. The problems that my noble friend articulated well relates to how we solve this problem, not whether we are committed to doing so. Unfortunately, it does not admit of a straightforward answer. If it did, we would have solved it long ago.

Amendment 93 withdrawn.

Pension Schemes Bill [HL]

Earl Howe Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 26th February 2020

(4 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Pension Schemes Act 2021 View all Pension Schemes Act 2021 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 4-II Second marshalled list for Grand Committee - (24 Feb 2020)
Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock
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My Lords, my noble friend Lady Drake has made a compelling case for the importance of this issue as well as giving us a helpful strategic overview of the state of the long-term savings industry and the impact of this dashboard on it. Done right, a dashboard could in time offer a useful service to savers. It would offer a chance to locate lost pots, to view in one place all the different bits of pension, state and private, and to make a realistic assessment whether someone is saving enough for retirement. But equally, the risks are huge, particularly given the scale if, as my noble friend said, data for more than 22 million people are to be channelled through this platform.

This becomes a public good only if it is designed and delivered in the right way, with transparency and all the necessary safeguards. As my noble friend Lady Drake said at Second Reading,

“public good cannot be traded off against commercial interests.”—[Official Report, 28/1/20; col. 1367.]

Labour would prefer this to be a public service, but if the Government are determined to go down the road of commercial dashboards, it is clearly essential that there be one “public good dashboard” owned, controlled and governed by a public body. My noble friend has given us a frankly staggering list of organisations supporting this that are right at the heart of the industry, including the CEO of the Pensions Regulator, who told the Work and Pensions Select Committee on 26 June 2019 that

“there must be the public dashboard”.

It is really very simple: the public should not be required to use a commercially owned dashboard to access their own data, especially in a market so susceptible to consumer detriment.

It is quite extraordinary that there is nothing in the Bill saying that there should be a public dashboard, when I think everybody had assumed this was going to happen. The Minister said at Second Reading

“MaPS committed to providing a dashboard in its 2019-20 business plan.”—[Official Report, 28/1/20; col. 1414.]

However, a Minister telling us that an NDPB has plans to do something is not the same as legislating that it must happen, so our amendments simply require that there be a public good dashboard.

The MaPS business plan said:

“It is envisaged that there will be multiple dashboards connected to the infrastructure, but also that there is merit in a consumer facing dashboard provided by a non-commercial and impartial organisation. The Money and Pensions Service, as part of its business as usual function to provide impartial information and guidance, will begin the development of a noncommercial consumer facing dashboard.”


There is not exactly a sense of urgency there; it contrasts quite markedly with what the noble Lord, Lord Young, has described as the ABI champing at the bit to get going and hoping to have it done by last year, or at the very latest this year.

That is the second point. Even if Ministers seek to assure us that MaPS is committed to producing a public dashboard, we want to know that it will be up and running before any commercial dashboards are allowed to start operating. That is what Amendment 48 is designed to ensure. I cannot see why this should be controversial. If Ministers are confident that MaPS is on target, no doubt they will accept the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Young, and reassure the Committee that a good public dashboard will be set up. Would it not be obviously sensible to have that up and running to test the architecture and infrastructure before allowing private companies to set their own up dashboards, with the additional risks that will bring?

I suppose it is possible that Ministers are not confident that MaPS will have its public dashboard running any time soon. They could easily dispel that thought by accepting the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Young, or indeed ours. I believe MaPS has said only that it hopes to be one of the first. The state’s recent track record with large-scale IT projects, as those of us covering DWP know to our cost, has not been fantastic. If multiple dashboards are to be allowed to be set up all at once, and if MaPS is to take its time in doing it, there could potentially be a considerable period in which consumers will be able to access their data only through a commercial dashboard. That does not seem to be in line with what we understood the Government intended to do.

Our amendments are simply designed to ensure three things: that there is a dashboard which is publicly owned, controlled and governed; that it is free to use and does not display advertising; and that if Ministers are to go down the route of commercial dashboards, they do not do so until the public dashboard has been operating for at least a year, and the Secretary of State has been able to report to Parliament on its structure and effectiveness.

I would like to ask the Minister some specific questions. They are really easy—not A-level questions but low-grade SATs questions, which I have no doubt should be in her brief somewhere. I shall read them really slowly. First, when does DWP expect the MaPS dashboard to be up and running? Secondly, when does it expect the first commercial dashboard to be up and running? Sorry, I was looking at the wrong Minister. Thirdly, how many dashboards do the Government think we will have? How many do they know of that are being tested or in the pipeline? Fourthly—this is a biggie—will commercial dashboards be allowed to charge consumers for using them? Fifthly, and this may be at GCSE standard, I understand that alongside any dashboard developed by MaPS, a liability model will need to be developed. We do not have any guarantee that the liability model will be ready before commercial dashboards become available, even if the MaPS dashboard is not ready. Is there any way that there could be a gap between people using commercial dashboards and the liability model being ready? That matters because, of course, if detriment is created then we need to know how it is to be managed and where responsibility lies.

I remain very worried about what the Government may be creating without considering all the implications, and its unintended as well as intended consequences. I look forward to the Minister’s reply to our amendments and to those tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Young. I hope the Government can reassure us that they will in fact be committed to having a high-quality, public good dashboard established before the industry is allowed to get into a free-for-all.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Sherlock, my noble friend Lord Young and the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for their valuable contributions to a debate on what I am the first to acknowledge is a significant set of topics. This group of amendments explores how privately operated dashboards will work alongside a public dashboard provided by the Money and Pensions Service. They also explore whether a public service dashboard will be delivered.

I want first to reassure the Committee that the Government are absolutely committed to the Money and Pensions Service, or MaPS, providing a qualifying dashboard service. Let there be no doubt about that; it was clearly set out in our consultation response Pensions Dashboards: Government Response to the Consultation published in April last year. The MaPS business plan for 2019-20, also published last April, subsequently confirmed its commitment to deliver a dashboard.

Furthermore, to pick up the sense of Amendments 47, 48 and 70, we entirely understand the importance of having a dashboard run by a public body without any commercial interest. One of the core functions of the Money and Pensions Service under the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018 is to provide free and impartial information and guidance about occupational and private pensions. Read together with Clause 122, that ensures that MaPS has the legal powers to provide a pensions dashboard that includes state pension information. To be clear, I say that accessing the information on dashboards will remain free, regardless of whether a dashboard is provided by MaPS or another organisation.

MaPS will be able to include signposting to free and impartial guidance on its dashboard, as will other organisations, as that supports its pensions guidance function. However, MaPS will not be able to host any income-generating advertising. MaPS has no revenue-raising powers under the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018.

I turn to ownership. We expect MaPS to provide a dashboard on an ongoing basis. However, it is important for there to be flexibility in how that function is carried out in line with changing technology and consumer interests. Here I am talking about the medium to long term. We also want to maximise the Government’s ability to ensure that ownership of the dashboard is in the right place in the longer term.

On Amendment 71, I very much share my noble friend Lord Young’s desire for a dashboard to be delivered in a timely manner to help people plan for their retirement. However, setting a date in legislation may be counterproductive. It risks creating a situation where decisions are taken simply to meet a legislative deadline, regardless of outcomes, rather than to meet the needs of individuals. To my mind, more important here is that we ensure that the service is accurate, secure and consumer focused. Developing a service that gives consumers a single point of access to their pensions information is complex. There are 40,000 schemes of differing types, covering around 25 million people with private pension wealth. The staged onboarding of thousands of pension schemes covering millions of separate records will raise issues that are not currently apparent, it is safe to predict. That tells us that dashboards should be delivered only when the Government and MaPS are confident that they are ready, so that consumers can be confident in the service offered. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, in particular agrees, given her apposite references to computer systems that perhaps have not quite lived up to expectations.

Through Amendments 37 and 48 the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Sherlock, also probe the question of introducing multiple dashboards alongside a MaPS dashboard. Having the potential to offer multiple dashboards at launch maximises the possible reach of this policy from the outset and could help to meet the differing needs of the many people using them. User research completed as part of the Government’s feasibility study and consultation showed that individuals may prefer to use a dashboard provided by an organisation with which they already have a relationship—for example, their employer—due to higher levels of familiarity and trust. It is a case of one step at a time, however.

I hope that the Committee is reassured that the information shown on all dashboards, public or private, will be the same, and based on user testing. We also intend all dashboards to start with a limited functionality until we better understand how individuals interact with their information.

A majority of respondents to the government consultation were supportive of multiple dashboards, provided sufficient consumer protections were in place. The Government have considered how to ensure that consumer protection, and accordingly we shall be introducing a new regulated activity under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to reflect the provision of dashboard services. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, we will cover this issue in more detail later.

Clause 118 provides the power to set out detailed requirements “for qualifying pensions dashboards”. It is also likely that this will be linked to the new regulated activity outlined by the Financial Conduct Authority. These are all provisions to ensure consumer protection in relation to privately run dashboards. Our job is to put that consumer protection regime in place, but, once it is in place, we do not wish to constrain the potential reach of the policy. Nor do we wish unnecessarily to limit consumer choice.

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Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann
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I hope my noble friend will forgive me for intervening, but after what he has just said, it is important to put on record that there are potentially significant dangers in launching commercial dashboards at the same time as the publicly funded dashboard. It is likely that that will generate enormous confusion in the consumer. It is entirely possible that consumers will not know which dashboard is which and will be driven to a commercial dashboard, which may not be in their impartial interests. I urge my noble friend to consider carefully that there are really strong and important reasons from a consumer protection perspective to have this publicly funded dashboard first, especially as the Government have devoted so much resource and commitment to providing it.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I say—gently—to my noble friend that I could not disagree more. I cannot see the risks that she has articulated, given all that I have said about putting the necessary consumer protections in place before anyone makes the first move to launch a commercial dashboard. Having said that, I very much respect her knowledge of the landscape and would be happy to have a conversation with her about the risks that she referred to. But having thought about this in some depth myself, I am satisfied that we will not allow a situation to arise where consumers are confused or put at risk by the multiplicity of dashboards. All the dashboards will show the same information. They will not be allowed to show different information. They may set it out differently, but that does not seem to constitute a risk to the consumer or of confusing the end user.

Subject to those remarks, and despite the lack of clarity around the timing of the matters I referred to, I hope that the assurances I have given are sufficient for noble Lords, and that the noble Baroness feels content to withdraw her amendment on that basis.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I will come back on a couple of points raised by the noble Baroness. The regulations that would achieve any future changes to the dashboard are subject to consultation and the affirmative resolution process. It comes back to what I indicated earlier was a step-by-step process. If the Government wanted to augment or change the content of the dashboard, they would have to do it in a measured and ordered way.

She also asked whether I believe that consumers want a publicly funded dashboard. I think that the answer to that will be revealed in consumer behaviour: if they clearly want it, they will use it, and we will know that. Of course, we cannot predict how consumer behaviour may change over the medium to long-term. That is the point that I was seeking to make earlier.

Lord Flight Portrait Lord Flight
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I will make a practical point. Running up to the launch, it would surely be very useful to have extensive marketing and advertising of MaPS, so that citizens know what to expect when it is live.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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That is a very constructive suggestion from my noble friend. I will take it away with me.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock
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My Lords, that had better not happen too soon, though, because there might be nothing to see for a while. I am very grateful to the Minister for his thorough response, even if some of it disappoints me. I am grateful to him for taking his time to go through the questions.

My noble friend Lady Drake, as always, expresses it more cogently and thoroughly than I do, but my problem is that the Minister is essentially saying that the Government are committed to MaPS producing a dashboard. This is not the same as the Government saying that they will ensure that there is a dashboard. My worry is that I do not want to see this rushed. I have been an adviser in government myself, when tax credits were being developed. I realise the problems that come out and I know only too well that when you develop new computer systems, you do not know what will happen until you press the button on the first day. However, my worry is that that is precisely what could happen here. If the Government are determined to allow commercial dashboards to go live whenever they are ready, what if MaPS then takes years to get it right? What if it never does? What if MaPS itself fails on another front? We could end up never having a public dashboard, in which case the Minister would not have broken his word but none the less a public dashboard would never have come to pass. If it were in the Bill there would be an obligation on Ministers.

I take my noble friend Lady Drake’s point about new incumbents. I have been in my brief since I think 2011 or 2012. I think that I am on my seventh Secretary of State. Given that one of them was there for quite a long time, there has been an awful lot of turnover since. It is not impossible that a new Secretary of State could come in and take a radically different view from their predecessor, as they have in my time, on some aspect of policy. It is not really the kind of assurance that we would want.

My worry is that the Minister has not addressed one point: if the Government believe that there should be a public dashboard, but are relaxed about the fact there could be a long period of time where consumers would be able to access their data, which the Government had mandated the release of, through only a commercial dashboard, why do they think that there should be a public dashboard at all? Theoretically, there could be five years between the commercial dashboard and the MaPS dashboard. If the Government think that it does not matter that there will be no public dashboard for that interim period, why do they think that it matters at all?

My final point is about the fact that the Minister thinks that there are no risks at all. I would like to hear this conversation between him and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, but I think it should take place in this Committee. The Minister defended the skeletal nature of the Bill. We will come back to this in the next group on Monday, but the Constitution Committee was quite explicit in saying that the Government’s defence that the Bill is very complex, that we have to get on with it and that we should not worry because the regulations will be affirmative, is not adequate or an excuse for drafting the Bill in this way. Part 4 is almost a skeleton.

The combination of all this is that the Government are saying, “There should be a dashboard. We cannot tell you when the public dashboard will be up. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine because we will regulate it. We can’t tell you who will regulate it, or how, or any of the circumstances. We can’t even tell you how we’ll make sure the risks don’t come to pass”. The Minister says that the information will be the same, but can he tell me whether it will be displayed in the same way, who will decide what the information will be or what the time periods will be? None of these questions has yet been answered. We will come back to them with our next amendment.

The Minister is asking the Committee to take a huge amount on trust when we have literally no idea what the dashboard will look like. Yet, somehow, we are just meant to say that it will be fine and the risks are fine. I spent 10 years on the board of the Financial Ombudsman Service. Every year we had to read a selection of case files. I have a pretty long experience of all the things that have gone wrong in sectors where the Government were confident they were well regulated and controlled, and where things could never possibly go wrong. My goodness, they have gone wrong in ways one could never have imagined when the regulations were being framed.

I am glad that the Minister is confident that there are low risks. I do not share his confidence, but maybe I am an old cynic. I would be interested if he could respond in particular to the point about why there needs to be a public dashboard at all if the Government do not mind whether there is not one for as long as it takes for MaPS to catch up. Can he answer that point?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I believe I am right in saying that while your Lordships’ Delegated Powers Committee had some trenchant things to say about the delegated powers in the rest of the Bill, it felt pretty relaxed about the powers in Part 4, because it recognised that it was absolutely necessary to have the kind of flexibility I referred to. We must take it that the committee looked at these matters in some depth. Clearly, it did not feel constrained in criticising the nature of the powers in other parts of the Bill. I think the delegated powers here are necessary. I do not think we should be frightened of them, but I can see that the accumulation of them might appear off-putting to noble Lords.

Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake
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I am conscious that I was a member of the Constitution Committee. The issue is not that simply the Government do or do not want flexibility. The issue is that such extensive delegated powers are being taken in the absence of significant areas of policy being settled. That is not the correct way to approach legislation.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I hear what the noble Baroness says. It is not that the policy is not settled but that the implementation of the policy is not settled. We know broadly what we want to achieve but the detail has yet to be worked through; including the functionality and the way that the liability model will form. We do not know all the answers; we know some of the answers, but not all of them. I do not accept that the policy as such is a blank sheet of paper.

Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake
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I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Pension Schemes Bill [HL]

Earl Howe Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting : House of Lords
Monday 24th February 2020

(4 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Pension Schemes Act 2021 View all Pension Schemes Act 2021 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 4-II Second marshalled list for Grand Committee - (24 Feb 2020)
The Minister’s reply to this group is of particular importance. I have tried to point out the specific hurdles he will have to jump over, but it will be important for him to give us as clear an answer as he can to each point to help us—and the many people who will be listening to this debate and reading the transcript—to understand where the Government are going. We have no desire to undermine the ability of the regulator to pursue those who put at risk the hard-earned funds of pension savers; equally, we need to be sure that appropriate safeguards are there. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this is quite a large group of amendments, all having as their subject matter Clause 107. I want to do justice to them so I therefore hope the Committee will forgive me if my reply is somewhat longer than might be welcome or the norm.

Let me briefly set out what this clause seeks to do. Clause 107 introduces two new criminal offences into the Pensions Act 2004, in new Sections 58A and 58B, and provision in new Sections 58C and 58D for mirroring financial penalties. These provisions strengthen the deterrent and punishment for certain conduct which puts pension schemes at risk. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, asked what sorts of acts we are targeting. The types of acts that could fall within the criminal offences—and which, incidentally, the Pensions Regulator has previously encountered—are, for example, the sale of an employer with a defined benefit scheme without replacing an existing parental guarantee over the employer’s Section 75 debt, resulting in the loss of the guarantee, including failing to tell the trustees about the sale in advance. That might be one example.

A second example would be the purchase of a company, subsequent mismanagement of that company and extraction of value prior to it going into administration, while a third might be the stripping of assets from the employer, resulting in a substantial weakening of support for the scheme. I do not mean to suggest that that is an exclusive list, but I hope it gives the Committee a flavour of the actions that we are targeting.

If found guilty of an offence under these new sections, a person would be liable to a fine on summary conviction or, on conviction on indictment, a fine or imprisonment for up to seven years. Where a financial penalty is issued in respect of these provisions, the person may receive a penalty of up to £1 million. The noble Lord, Lord Hutton, asked me why we had drafted it so that the offence could be tried either way. I think that, in sum, the reason is that it gives the Pensions Regulator discretion to focus on all ranges of what might be considered bad behaviour or wilful or reckless behaviour, not just the most severe. It gives the regulator that flexibility.

I realise that Amendments 17 and 22 are probing amendments. They seek to probe whether and how far the two new offences should apply to any person whose conduct is within the scope of the offences, and they suggest that they might apply only to a person who wilfully, recklessly or unscrupulously does an act or engages in such conduct. I will say something about the words “wilfully” or “recklessly” in a moment, but is it is important first to understand that the new criminal offences and financial penalty provisions target conduct that avoids employer debt to pension schemes or risks accrued scheme benefits being paid. It is the conduct that we are focusing on here. It is an offence only if the person intended to harm the scheme or should have known that the conduct would have that effect and has no reasonable excuse for their actions.

In proposing these criminal offences, it is absolutely not the Government’s intention to interfere with routine business activities. The Pensions Regulator also continues to be responsible for making sure that employers balance the needs of their defined-benefit pension scheme with growing their business. However, it is important that where the elements of the offences are met, no matter who has committed them, the Pensions Regulator should be able to respond appropriately. Any restriction of the persons would create a loophole for these people to act in such a way.

Leading on from that, Amendment 18, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, seeks to remove the requirement in the new criminal offence in new Section 58A for the Pensions Regulator to prove that a person intended an act or course of conduct to have the effect stated in the offence. The amendment would significantly change the nature of the new offence. It would also duplicate many elements of the new offence contained in new Section 58B. In practical terms, new Section 58A as introduced applies only where wilful behaviours have occurred. That is evident as the section requires that

“the person intended the act or course of conduct”

to have the effect as set out. It is worth my adding that this offence also mirrors the existing main purpose test in the contribution notice regime and has been worded accordingly.

The noble Baroness made reference at Second Reading to the difficulty, in her view, of proving intent in the corporate environment. I have to say that I am not with her on that. Proving that a person’s behaviour was intentional is something that the regulator currently does under the main purpose test in the contribution notice regime, so we are confident that this should not be cause for concern.

In contrast to some of the earlier amendments, Amendments 23, 24, 25 and 26 would change the basis of the new criminal offence, as included in new Section 58B, making the scope of the activities caught by the offence wider than as set out in the Bill. Mirroring changes have also been made to the corresponding financial penalty provision, as included in new Section 58D. As introduced in the Bill, the basis of the test in these new sections is whether a person does an act or course of conduct which,

“detrimentally affects in a material way the likelihood of accrued scheme benefits being received”.

The test requires that the person knew or ought to have known that the act or course of conduct would have this effect. However, the amendments as tabled would mean that the test is met where a person,

“wilfully or recklessly puts at risk accrued scheme benefits being received”.

There are two main points I would like to address on these amendments and on why their wording is not appropriate. The first is a point of clarification around why we have not drafted the new offence and corresponding financial penalty in terms of the words “wilful” and “reckless” conduct. We have listened to feedback following consultation around the application of a test and we concluded that there would be too much uncertainty regarding what the words mean for us to legislate on this basis. Instead, the provisions have been drafted in such a way that it should be clear whether the test is met.

Secondly, changing the basis of the test to “puts at risk” could cause uncertainty within the industry. We consciously used the existing contribution notice tests as the basis for the new sanctions, as they target similar behaviours and are already familiar to the industry. By comparison, changing the basis of the test at new Sections 58B and 58D to “putting at risk” would create a new concept. Our view is that this would create uncertainty and a lack of clarity about the application of the new sanctions. In particular, changing the basis of the test could raise questions around the interpretation of the legislation, which the Bill, as introduced, already seeks to address.

It is clear that the types of conduct that either,

“detrimentally affects in a material way the likelihood of”,

benefits being received or, as per the amendment, “puts at risk” benefits being received, could be wide-ranging. This is why the Bill, as introduced, includes the concept of materiality, as a means to indicate that consideration will need to be given to the level of impact the conduct has on the likelihood of accrued scheme benefits being received. The concept “puts at risk” does not include any indication that the level of impact should be considered at all. Therefore, if the amendments were to be accepted, it could be argued that conduct that puts benefits at risk by even a fraction of a per cent could be in scope, which would go beyond the policy intention.

Amendments 19, 20 and 21 seek to provide further clarity around the way in which the reasonable excuse defence will work and to provide protection from prosecution if an act or course of conduct has been approved by the Pensions Regulator or the Pension Protection Fund. I believe that Amendments 19 and 20 are unnecessary and will set out why.

The existing phrase in the Bill “reasonable excuse”, which is to be removed by Amendment 19, has an inherently wide meaning in practice and could be interpreted to include the factors being presented in the amendment. It is therefore unnecessary to set out those factors. The factors that the prosecuting authority would consider when determining whether there is a reasonable excuse would depend on the individual circumstances of each case. Amendment 20 could, however, limit the factors the prosecuting authority and the courts could consider when determining whether there is a reasonable excuse and may potentially result in unintended consequences. For example, a person may have a reasonable excuse that does not fall into one of the factors to be considered. It is the age-old problem of including a list in legislation—a problem with which my noble friend is very familiar, I am sure.

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Lord Hutton of Furness Portrait Lord Hutton of Furness
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I hear what the Minister says about prosecuting authorities but can he turn his remarks to the subject of why in those circumstances the Secretary of State should be considered a legitimate prosecuting authority? He has not mentioned that. I understand his points about the DPP and the Pensions Regulator but what about the Secretary of State?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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I was coming to that but I will deal with it now. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions can institute proceedings for an offence under new Sections 58A and 58B in England and Wales only. This drafting mirrors the legislation of similar offences, such as insider dealing in the Criminal Justice Act 1993, as well as offences in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and the Insolvency Act 1986, where the Treasury or the Insolvency Service could bring prosecutions.

The inclusion of the Secretary of State here enables the Government to ensure that the most serious conduct that harms pension schemes will remain punishable in the future. For example, if the ability of the regulator to bring about proceedings is hindered or the regulator ceases to exist—or exists in a different form—this provision could cut in. It is not envisaged that the Secretary of State will institute prosecutions where the Pensions Regulator or, where relevant, the Director of Public Prosecutions has decided against it. Further, where the power to institute prosecutions is exercised, the guidelines from the Code for Crown Prosecutors will apply.

Lord Hutton of Furness Portrait Lord Hutton of Furness
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Where will that be set out? If the Secretary of State will not prosecute in those circumstances, how will that be made clear?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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It will be made clear—in practice, if anything—but the Secretary of State will reserve the power for the rarest of occasions, I imagine, in the circumstances that I outlined. The normal course would be for the traditional prosecuting authorities to act. Only where the Secretary of State sees an egregious example of someone likely to get away without prosecution for reasons beyond the control of the prosecuting authorities will he or she step in. I cannot generalise about the circumstances. That power is there, as in the other Acts that I mentioned, very much as a long-stop provision.

Amendment 35, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, proposes a new clause requiring the Pensions Regulator to publish guidance on how it intends to use the new criminal offences. We think this amendment is unnecessary. The Pensions Regulator already has a general prosecution policy in place which sets out the matters it considers when using its prosecution powers. The Pensions Regulator intends to issue further specific guidance explaining its approach to prosecuting the new offences under Part 3 of the Bill.

I fear there is also a practical difficulty, because it is unclear how the amendment could be implemented. The amendment would require the Pensions Regulator to publish guidance pertaining to the new offences at the point of Royal Assent. The problem with that is that the provisions in Part 3, which include the new criminal offences, are subject to changes up to the point of Royal Assent and it would be unwise to pre-empt the will of Parliament by preparing guidance based on draft provisions. It is expected that, following Royal Assent, the regulator will consult on the contents of the guidance for the new offences and expects to publish this guidance prior to commencement. It is clearly important that the industry’s views are sought on what is contained in the guidance, and the timing requirement proposed in this amendment would mean the regulator would consult before the offences are finally settled.

A further reason the amendment is unnecessary—indeed, I would say inappropriate—is due to the inclusion of the phrase

“guidance … concerning the operation of law”.

This phrase has a very specific meaning, and implies that the intention behind the amendment is that it will be for the Pensions Regulator to determine how the legislation should be interpreted. This is of course a matter for the courts, which will make the decision as to whether an offence has been committed in a particular case. Therefore, while the regulator’s guidance will provide assistance as to how the regulator intends to use the new criminal offences, it will not be definitive; nor could it or should it be, since something deemed to be reasonable in one case, for example, may not be reasonable in another. I should mention, for completeness, that there are a number of technical issues with all these amendments which could cause confusion. I shall not go into them here, but I can explain the details to noble Lords if necessary, outside the Committee.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked what kind of estimate we make of the number of people who might go to prison under these criminal offences. Clearly, irresponsible treatment of pension schemes is rare; however, it is important that where we have wilful or reckless behaviour, appropriate sanctions are available. The Pensions Regulator has successfully brought 16 convictions over the past two and a half years—it is of course for the courts to decide who gets convicted and what the penalty should be. I hope it is widely accepted that the Pensions Regulator must meet a higher threshold before a criminal prosecution can be commenced. As the Pensions Regulator has already commented, it would use these new powers only in the right circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Hutton, asked a further question about the words “any person” and what other legislation uses that phrase. It is the norm for criminal offences across the statute book to be drafted as applying to “any person” and I can give him examples—I would be happy to write to him.

It is clear that the majority of employers want to do right by their scheme. However, we must ensure that there are sufficient safeguards to protect members’ pensions from the minority who are prepared to put them at risk. If the category of persons whose conduct is within the scope of the offences as set out in Clause 107 were to be narrowed in the way that some of the amendments propose, we believe that the deterrent provided by the offences would be weakened, as indeed would the safeguards built into them. In contrast, making the scope of the activities caught by the offences wider, as separately proposed by other amendments, not only risks removing a key consideration of the level of impact of the conduct but also reduces safeguards. The Government have therefore sought to strike a balance to ensure that members’ benefits are protected while taking into account impacts on business.

I apologise again for speaking at such length, but I hope that the comments I have made will allow noble Lords to feel comfortable in not pressing their amendments.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I had intended to probe especially around the words “wilful” and “reckless”; I had a little add-on for fun. When I first thought of putting those words in after “person”, I rapidly came to the conclusion myself—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, was there—that in the end they did not make any difference. However, I am not actually sure that that is quite true with regard to the offence of the avoidance of employer debt. New subsection (2)(b) states

“the person intended the act or course of conduct to have such an effect”

but that has to be applied to the examples that might be targeted given by the Minister. In the case of sale of the employer and a parental guarantee not being replaced, that might be done through negligence rather than intent and then it would not be caught because the words “ought to have known” do not appear in the new Section 58A offence, although they do in the new Section 58B offence. So the Government have caught recklessness in new Section 58B but not in new Section 58A. Maybe the words “ought to have known” or something like them could be put there.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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It might be helpful to the noble Baroness if I clarify. New Section 58A is intended to capture the concept of wilfulness and new Section 58B the concept of recklessness.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted
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I see. I do not see why we could not have them caught in both. Anyway, we have debated this long enough. I thank the Minister for his replies, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.