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The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks):
During the first sitting of the Pensions Bill in Standing Committee B on Tuesday, 9 March 2004, Official Report, column 10, I announced that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would undertake a
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review of the funding of the Pensions Advisory Service (commonly known as OPAS). I am now able to announce the outcome of that review.
Whereas OPAS previously received grant in aid through the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority (Opra), in future it will receive grant directly from the Department for Work and Pensions. This arrangement will take effect for the financial year 200506. Though the pensions regulator (the body that succeeds Opra) will have no delegated accounting officer responsibility for OPAS, OPAS funding will continue to be recouped from the pensions industry through the levy administered by the pensions regulator.
To inform this prospective change, the Department reviewed the customer services OPAS provides. Its conclusion is that OPAS is an excellent example of the value for money and quality of service that can be provided at remarkably low cost by the voluntary sector. Through its telephone helpline, its team of mainly voluntary pension professionals and the media appearances of senior staff on financial advice programmes, OPAS provides, free of charge, a unique source of expert advice on pension matters to the general public. OPAS also performs an important filtering service by resolving large numbers of complaints cases that might otherwise go to the pensions ombudsman. Furthermore, it is uniquely positioned to provide the Department with insights into developing issues in the pensions market that can be of potential policy relevance.
Under the new arrangements, the Department's intention is to provide OPAS with continuing budgetary security whilst maintaining its integrity as a free and independent source of impartial advice for the general public. Wherever we can, we will assist OPAS to improve upon existing standards of customer service. We will do this through revised stewardship arrangements; by taking a stronger strategic interest in OPAS's strategic objectives and by agreeing a revised management statement and financial memorandum. OPAS and the Department will also draw up a partnership accord setting out our respective expectations of one another.
At the same time, the OPAS board is taking this opportunity to review its own constitution; its strategic objectives and the management style of the office. It is also considering, in conjunction with the Department, whether, by acquiring new information technology and better data collection, it can make an improved contribution to evidence-based pensions policy making.
Opportunities may also exist for further improvements to the value for money and the quality of advice that OPAS gives the general public through the provision by the Department of greater access for OPAS to expert knowledge and help (including basic training) on state pensions and contributory conditions. To further improve advice giving, OPAS is also producing revised staff competency frameworks and drawing on the experience of other organisations that provide helpline advice. Opportunities to strengthen customer service may also be possible through OPAS reaching out to other organisations providing similar services and making partnership arrangements with them.