In Parliament – September

Below is an account of the contributions I made in Parliament during September.

Hallet Report – Tuesday 9th September 2014

Nigel Mills MP: I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. At its start she mentioned that she discussed this issue with the various authorities in Northern Ireland. At the Select Committee last week I asked whether she would consider asking those authorities to make a similar statement, so that we could be sure that the courts in Northern Ireland accept that this status is for the whole of the UK, not just the Secretary of State, given that she has no power over the courts in Northern Ireland. Has she taken that on board and ruled it out?

Theresa Villiers MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chipping Barnet, Conservative): I did give that suggestion some thought and I discussed it with David Ford. I continue to be of the view that these statements were made by the UK Government—largely by the Northern Ireland Office, and by No. 10 in a couple of instances—so it is for the UK Government to clarify their status. The key factor is that this is the Government’s statement of what the letters now mean. In those circumstances I do not think it is necessary for an additional statement to be published by the Department of Justice or the devolved authorities, but, as I have told the House, they agree that this is the best way forward to do whatever we can to try to remove barriers to prosecution that might be created by the scheme.

Pension Schemes Bill – Tuesday 2nd September 2014

Nigel Mills MP: It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and welcome the many positive measures in the Bill, which will substantially improve the pensions landscape in the UK—not before time, perhaps. I wish to touch on the two main areas that the debate is focused on: the introduction of the defined-ambition or shared-risk scheme, and the move to get flexibility at retirement age and the guidance that that involves.

We should pay tribute to the Minister for the fact that we have defined ambition in a piece of legislation; it has been almost a one-man dream for most of this Parliament, and perhaps we all thought it would not quite make it, but here it is in the Bill. If I appear generous in my praise for my coalition colleague, let me say that is was a brave thing for any politician to try to define a promise. We have all struggled with this: when is a promise not a promise? We know now that a promise is not a promise when it is an ambition. I think we were tortuously trying to work out in this Bill how to say what constitutes a complete pension promise and where something is not quite a promise but an aspiration, a hint, a suggestion or something more than a hope. I think that the Bill’s definition just about gets there, but I am not totally sure, without trying to work it through in various scenarios, that I can work out when a full pensions promise perhaps becomes a partial promise. That goes to the nub of the matter.

When we try to get into the detail of how we regulate these things and move them forward, we find how much of a promise or how much certainty or expectation can be created to allow one of these schemes to become a shared-risk scheme rather than a defined-benefits scheme or something that is no more meaningful than an existing defined-contributions scheme. Working out exactly what a good employer who is trying to be generous and helpful to their staff can say without falling foul of some of these rules will be hard. I assume that what we are trying to do is to say that under a defined-benefits scheme, if a person finishes their role on £30,000 a year, they will get a £20,000 a year pension. That is clearly a defined benefit. I suspect that what we are trying to say under defined ambition is that if a person finishes their role on £30,000 a year, and investment returns and longevity are just about what we expect, we think that we will be able to give them £20,000 a year. But if those assumptions are a bit out, we might have to put in a bit more money ourselves and they will get £18,000 rather £20,000. I suspect that that is the sort of promise we are trying to achieve with a shared-risk scheme.

It is not clear exactly how we can set the parameters. For example, when can £20,000 become £10,000? If there is a higher investment return, contributions can be reduced and we may still think that we can get £20,000. I think that we will just end up dropping back into regulatory uncertainty and all the issues that we have had on defined-benefits schemes. A lot of work needs to be done to get these schemes out in the market. We need to understand exactly how much risk the employer is running and how much certainty the individual gets; otherwise we are left with the difficult situation the Minister alluded to, where one side thinks it is an actual promise and the other side thinks it is a kind of hope. It probably means that whoever regulates these new shared-risk schemes will have an incredibly important role. In some ways, it will be even more difficult for trustees to administer defined-benefits schemes. I sense we will need a very competent and focused regulator looking at these things.

As I said in my intervention, it is a little difficult to see where the line will be drawn between defined benefit and defined ambition and between defined ambition, defined contributions plus and pure defined contributions. I suspect that before these things get into full speed, we will need one regulator doing all those things. If a scheme makes a bit of a promise and then withdraws it, does it drop out from being a defined ambition and become something else?

Ian Swales MP, (Redcar, Liberal Democrat): My hon. Friend raises some excellent points. He does not specifically mention governance, which could make the thing slightly more complex because there is a third leg to the stool between the employer and employee. The explanatory notes talk about comparisons with schemes in other countries and use the expression “when governed appropriately” when talking about what schemes can provide. Has he any comments about the governance situation?

Nigel Mills MP: Yes. I have not been totally clear. I was alluding to the fact that these schemes will be even harder for trustees. I meant the trustees who try to govern these schemes. If we have a scheme that is giving a clear promise, we can create a set of assumptions. We will know how much funding we will need on top of our investment returns and longevity predictions. We will at least have some fixed parameters, so we can then define the contributions. If we even vary what we are promising to pay, we would have to take a really educated decision and say, “Shall we vary the promise down from £20,000 to £18,000, put up the contributions or a bit of both? Will it all be all right again in five years?” That will become quite difficult for trustees, and we will then really need the regulator to be able to check that trustees are capable and competent at dealing with shifting sands in these calculations.

Steve Webb, Minister for Pensions, (Thornbury and Yate, Liberal Democrat): I did not respond properly to the hon. Gentleman when he intervened on me on this matter. Broadly speaking, it would not change which regulator was involved if there was or was not a bit of a promise. The Pensions Regulator deals with occupational workplace defined-benefits and defined-contributions pensions. The Financial Conduct Authority deals with group personal pensions and similar. Essentially, that is the division rather than whether there is or is not a promise.

Nigel Mills MP: That is a helpful clarification, but we have still had the bizarre situation in which the Pensions Regulator is responsible for auto-enrolment even though most of the schemes into which people are enrolled are not regulated by the Pensions Regulator. I sense that we are introducing further uncertainty into what schemes there are and people need to understand exactly what is going on.

Trying to create a new form of pension that can try to stop the bleed away from defined benefits is the right direction in which to travel. If we are to have a credible pensions industry, we need to ensure that people can have certainty or at least confidence that if they keep paying into their pension funds with their employers at the rate that they are they will have some idea what they will get rather than a vague hope that they might at some point get something suitable. That is the thing that does most discredit to the pensions industry. People end up getting so much less than they thought they would, despite what they thought they were paying and would be entitled to, that they decide the whole thing is not worth doing at all.

That question takes us to a fundamental part of pensions policy. We are spending a lot of taxpayers’ money on tax relief for pensions and if we end up with just a glorified savings vehicle with no direct link to pensions, we must wonder whether we will be distorting the investment market quite horribly. We need a clear and confident link, so that people know that the money they are putting away is meant to get a retirement income that they are happy with and is not just a super-glorified pre-tax income ISA, which I fear we might be drifting towards.

The Work and Pensions Committee considered the principle of collective schemes briefly in our inquiry on a pension governance a couple of years ago. The idea that we can somehow share risk between the generations, smoothing things out so that if there is a market crash just before someone expects to retire they do not suddenly have their pension income destroyed in a way that they cannot possibly recover from—clearly, that can be smoothed out by reducing the risk profile of investments, as is done now—looks to be a perfectly sensible and attractive way forward. I am a little intrigued about how we can go from having none of those schemes to having them in place, having enough people in them and having enough confidence that people will continue to join them to ensure that the intergenerational thing can work. Some European countries have had such schemes for 60 years and we can see how they work, but the question is how we go from zero to having three generations of people without the first lot thinking that they are taking all the risk for no advantage, although perhaps if their grandchildren join it might all be okay. I am sure that the industry will work out how to devise schemes in a way that will get people involved.

Let me turn to greater flexibility in the pension world. I can see that if we say that we do not think people are sufficiently engaged with pensions to join a scheme we must ask how we can be confident that they are sufficiently engaged to make even more difficult choices when they retire about what they want to do. There is a big difference. I might not be too bothered about pensions when I am 30, as I might have more pressing things to think about such as buying a house, paying for my children or sorting out other stuff, but perhaps when I am closer to retirement age and thinking about what my income will be in six months’ time, a year’s time or perhaps even a little further away, I will probably be much more engaged in the best choices for me and will perhaps be more inclined to go out and look at the various options.

One issue that we have had until this point has been that the option has been to have some kind of annuity that is lower than I would like. If I try to shop around, I find differing levels of things I do not like. That is not a great motivation to go shopping. If I know that I am not going to want to buy any of the things I am offered but I have to, I might as well just default to the first thing I get. There does not seem to be any advantage to shopping around.

Dame Anne Begg MP (Aberdeen South, Labour): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that often when there is too much choice people are paralysed and end up grabbing at the first thing that comes along rather than the thing which is best?

Nigel Mills MP: Yes. Some data suggest that the optimum number of choices is four. If there are 20 choices in a mobile phone shop, people walk out without buying one. If there are not enough, they do not ever have a phone. We need enough choice to see a difference, but not so much that we are completely baffled by our options.

I think that we are hoping that the market will innovate certain things that will mean it will not be a choice of annuity into which we will opt for life that will give the same amount for the rest of our lives or some kind of draw-down in which we keep spending our pots and hoping that they will last. I suspect that we will end up with people taking some kind of fixed guaranteed income, so that no matter how long they live they will have the quality of life that they want, but they might be able to choose to use some of the rest of their money to fund travelling in early retirement, paying off the mortgage or doing something for their children or grandchildren. Perhaps we could have an annuity that varies, which is higher at the start, dips and then goes up at the end when people need care fees.

I think that we are hoping that most people with a small or medium pension pot will not be faced with a blizzard of hugely complicated financial products, but that there will be options that they can match to their personal choice for their retirement. That is where high-level guidance is important.

People need to understand that there are different things out there for them to look at. I suggest that they do not just immediately accept the annuity offer that their pension provider makes. They should at least think about what would suit their lifestyle, what their existing financial position is and what they and their spouse want to do. That is where guidance is very important. It is very different from financial advice, which might be, “Take out this annuity with this provider, on these terms.” I suspect there is no way to get such specific guidance, and we should never want such specific guidance. That would be a horribly expensive programme, which would only be appropriate for a relatively small band of people.

Those who retire with huge pension pots should already be taking such advice and can afford to pay for it. Those with small and medium pots will not have that advice and, I suspect, in many cases will not need to spend thousands of pounds getting advice; it would not be a worthwhile use of their money. It is people in the band in the middle who perhaps could really benefit from expensive financial advice. How we get that guidance to work, and when people receive that guidance, is very important.

I think that we shall see a move away from retirement at one’s 66th birthday, or another fixed date. People may gradually step down to working four, then three days a week. They will have small amounts of income coming in from different sources. Lifestyles will vary, and they will start varying, perhaps, in people’s mid-50s. Some people will work full time right into their 70s. Possibly, they will not want advice at the age of 65 and a half or 66; they will need to think, “Do I want my pension fund to start de-risking my investments now, at age 55, or would I rather they did that for part of my pension fund, so that I know that I will get something when I am 66 but I will keep some higher-risk investments to get a higher yield for a few more years?” When we make that guidance available, and when people can choose to receive it, will be a key aspect; otherwise, people will end up in a default fund that does not suit what they plan to do with their own hard-saved income.

It is clear that the change is a very positive step in the right direction. If people are responsible enough to save for their retirement, I cannot see them frittering the money away on the proverbial Lamborghini when they hit 66. This flexibility will give people the chance to have the retirement that they want without being ripped off by the annuity market.

Some of us had wrestled with the question of how we could fix the broken annuity market. I had come up with the suggestion of splitting the pension fund industry and the annuity market, which did not meet with much approval in the industry. But what the Government have done is far more radical. An annuity may be the right thing for many, many people; but for many, it will not. Now there will be no compulsion or expectation for people to take out an annuity when they hit retirement age. That has to be the right answer, and I fully welcome the Bill.

Nigel Mills MP: The Minister has just mentioned the regulatory regime. Has he given any thought to how we will regulate the new defined-ambition, shared-risk schemes? Presumably, if a defined-contribution scheme adds a small promise, it will trip over into being a defined-ambition scheme. The regulation would therefore move from the Financial Conduct Authority to the Pensions Regulator, and it could drop back again. Does it not look as though we need one pensions regulator to make it all make sense?

Steve Webb MP, Minister for Pensions, (Thornbury and Yate, Liberal Democrat): I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is an issue that the Work and Pensions Committee, of which he is a member, has raised in relation to the appropriate regulatory regime. It is fair to say that in drawing up the regulations and guidance for the Bill, the number of times we have had to ask ourselves which regulator it is that does which bit and to ensure that what the FCA does mirrors what the Pensions Regulator does has added to the complexity of the process. When I gave evidence to the Select Committee a little while ago, I said that this was not the time to start reforming the regulators. That remains my view. My hon. Friend will be aware that the FCA has only just been created out of the ashes of the Financial Services Authority. This precise point is not the right time for yet another regulatory reform. However, the experience of the last 12 months has made me more sympathetic to the view that the eventual destination might well be a single regulator.

My hon. Friend also raises the regulation of DA and collective DC schemes. It is clear that what we need is good governance. Arguably, one of the problems of the Dutch experience, as it has been described to us, is that the schemes were described as DB to the members and DC to the employers. One of those two descriptions was not true. We have to ensure that we have good governance and transparent communication. Because of issues of intergenerational fairness and so on, the rules of the scheme—who gets what when things go wrong and who benefits when things go well—have to be transparent. We therefore need a clear, although not excessive, regulatory framework.

What I have described so far is the Pension Schemes Bill as we originally envisaged it, which deals with risk sharing. Obviously, that is the fruit of several years’ worth of consultation papers and extensive engagement with stakeholders in the pensions industry. I would like to place on the record my appreciation to the many working groups that the Department has run, including the defined ambition working groups of Andrew Vaughn of the Association of Consulting Actuaries, and to all the experts who have given their time to help us draw up the various models. We are very grateful to them.

Work and Pensions Oral Questions – Monday 1st September

Nigel Mills MP: What scope is there for increasing the number of people who can get PIP without having to go through the medical assessment? If written evidence is clear that they are entitled to it, why waste everyone’s time by going through an assessment?

Mark Harper MP, The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, (Forest of Dean, Conservative): I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a relatively new benefit, and what we are trying to ensure is that in cases where there is clear medical evidence for the impact of someone’s disability, the decision can be made without their having to come in for a face-to-face assessment. That was not happening enough in the earlier stages; it is one of the improvements that we are making.