Pensions Bill

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Kevin Brennan: As I am sure the Under-Secretary knows, workers and pension scheme members really become irate when independent trustees charge exorbitant sums of money for answering proper letters from workers who simply want to find out what has happened to their pension, and when those trustees take huge chunks of money out of pension schemes that are in wind-up. The spectacle of such exorbitant fees being accepted has caused great and understandable anger among workers whose pensions are at risk.

I have always felt that there is a problem in the market for independent trustees. Very few firms offer that service and there seems to be little competition and a great deal of collusion between those companies. We are told that a high degree of specialism and expertise is necessary.

In cases of such market failure, the argument for Government action and state intervention arises. I used the term ''nationalise'', which is not very popular these days, but there is a case to be made for the regulator having some of the relevant expertise in-house and being able to offer the service in question. I invite the Under-Secretary to make observations on whether that would be possible

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within the scope of the Bill. Does he anticipate—as a regular occurrence—that, in cases where the wind-up was straightforward and did not require scarce outside expertise, the pensions regulator could directly solve the problem?

I understand that the hon. Member for Tatton and his colleagues have tabled amendments that are probing in their nature. However, I would observe that although the hon. Member for Northavon was correct when he said that there are occasions when the employer could be at fault, there are never occasions when the employee is at fault in those matters. We must remember that from time to time, because they are the ones who pay the price.

11.15 am

Mr. Pond: My hon. Friend makes an important point and we must recognise that the purpose of the Opposition amendments is to remove the regulator's power to apportion the costs between the employer and the scheme, or to require that the employer pays them. That would be a significant change, because currently in the great majority of cases OPRA requires that the employer pays the trustees' costs. The amendment would increase the anger that would be felt by members and would have a considerable impact, in the ways that have been expressed so eloquently by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Tynan: In a previous intervention, I asked a question about wind-ups and the regulator. This provision deals with the regulator appointing a trustee. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West made the point that where a scheme is wound up, huge sums are often deducted for answering letters. If, within the Bill, there is not the opportunity to have the regulator involved before a wind-up, the point that he made will continue to apply. How could we overcome that?

Mr. Pond: I can tell my hon. Friend that there will be many circumstances where the regulator becomes involved before wind-up. That is part of the reason why we have been discussing the freezing order process and, indeed, the other mechanisms that the regulator can use to intervene before a winding-up process takes place, such as the improvement and the third party notices. While we do not expect the regulator to run pension schemes—it would be quite wrong to expect it to do that—we want to ensure that where schemes start to run into trouble the regulator is there to ensure that, wherever possible, winding up can be avoided.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West and by the hon. Member for Northavon about the cost of trustees where they are appointed when schemes have run into trouble, I can tell them that there is concern about the level of fees charged by trustees in those circumstances. The Minister will be tabling a Government amendment to deal with that issue later.

I can give the Committee the reassurance that any trustee appointed by the regulator will either be a trustee appointed from a register held by the regulator or will be a member. In the case of schemes with no trustee, a member is often appointed to reduce the overall costs of the process. That might go part of the

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way towards the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West about in-house expertise. Trustees will be eligible to be on that register only if they agree to a monitoring of fees by the regulator. That is in recognition of the fact that so many people are concerned about the level of fees charged at the moment, and that those fees can eat deeply into the scheme funds, which may already be diminishing.

Mr. Webb: What the Under-Secretary has said is extraordinarily welcome and potentially very significant, but does that not throw into even sharper relief the comment of the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan)? He said that, when the regulator was involved, there might be a not-for-profit situation in which money was not siphoned out of a fund, but if the regulator was not involved in a wind-up, people could be victims in just the same way. Will there be a mechanism whereby people can ask the regulator to get involved as soon as they know that their scheme is being wound up?

Mr. Pond: In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South, regulations require regular reports to OPRA, the current regulator, when schemes are winding up. Of course, the new regulator will continue to have that role. We are not suggesting that the regulator should take one step back from that.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon, the clause gives an opportunity for trustees, employers and members to request that the regulator appoints a trustee, if trustees or employers feel that they do not have sufficient expertise, or if members feel anxiety about that. At the moment, they can only informally ask OPRA to do that. If OPRA ignores them, which I am sure it would never do, there is nothing that any of those groups can do to require the request to be treated seriously. With those reassurances, I hope that the amendments will be withdrawn.

Mr. Osborne: Sometimes one strikes gold with probing amendments. We have discovered that there is a whole new bit of the Bill to come. I was not aware of that. I am therefore delighted that I tabled the amendments, even if they attracted some sarcastic comments from the hon. Member for Cardiff, West—

Kevin Brennan: Not from me.

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Mr. Osborne—and from the hon. Member for Northavon. Given that we have learned some important information, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 33

Regulator's right to apply under

section 423 of Insolvency Act 1986

Amendment made: No. 31, in

    clause 33, page 20, line 13, leave out

    'for the purposes of Part 1 of the Pensions Act 1995'.—[Mr. Pond.]

Mr. Osborne: I beg to move amendment No. 188, in

    clause 33, page 20, line 31, leave out subsection (7).

This is another probing amendment. It would remove subsection (7), which says that the clause does not apply if the actuarial valuation that established that the assets were insufficient to meet protected liabilities took place before the Bill came into force. I understand that that is a way of commencing the clause, but presumably the clause cannot commence until the Bill becomes an Act.

Perhaps I am missing something—it was midnight when I was looking at the clause—but it seems that the actuarial valuation referred to in subsection (3) is obtained by the PPF board. As the board does not exist until the Bill comes into force, I am not clear as to how it can obtain an actuarial valuation, and so I am not sure that subsection (7) is relevant. However, I have probably missed something, and the Under-Secretary will probably explain.

Mr. Pond: Let me explain that the clause is designed to give the regulator the same standing as insolvency practitioners to pursue any debt due to a pension scheme by reason of transactions that it suspects were made at an undervalue—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Brennan, Kevin
Cairns, David
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Dean, Mrs.
Edwards, Mr.
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Jones, Mr. Kevan
MacDougall, Mr.
Moran, Margaret
Osborne, Mr. George
Pond, Mr.
Price, Adam
Robertson, John
Rosindell, Mr.
Tynan, Mr.
Webb, Mr.
Wicks, Malcolm

Liam Laurence Smyth, Sarah Hartwell,
  Committee Clerks

 
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