Pension transfers, U turns and an outbreak of common sense

Neil Copeland

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Apparently the Baiji (Yangtze River Dolphin) is amongst the rarest mammals in the world. It may even be extinct. Clearly there’s a fine line between being very, very rare (i.e. only one left) or being extinct (none left). The last definitive sighting was in 2004. It was declared functionally extinct in 2006 but video footage of what might have been a Baiji was taken in 2007 raising the possibility that there was at least one survivor out there, wisely staying well clear of humans.

When it comes to pensions legislation common sense is nearly as uncommon, but we appear to have a confirmed sighting in the DWP’s response to the consultation on the abolition of contracting out on a defined contribution basis.

Now I have never understood why one of Margaret Thatcher’s most lauded sound bites was “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!” Not turning in the face of irrefutable danger or logic is not a particularly common sense position to adopt. Indeed history and experience teach us that a U turn is not necessarily a wrong turn.

If only the Titanic had been able to perform a timely U turn. Or Thelma. Or Louise.

So clearly I welcome the Government’s common sense U turn on the abolition of transfers from contracted out pension schemes. I had blogged previously about the iniquities of the original provision, sneakily hidden in the regulations regarding the abolition of DC Contracting-out, which could have outlawed such transfers. Respondents to the DWP’s consultation on these Regulations presented a factual and rational analysis as to why, for some people, based on their particular circumstances, transferring out of a contracted out defined benefit scheme is clearly in their interests. A lesson that the Pensions Regulator could usefully learn.  More importantly the DWP appears to accept that the decision about whether or not to transfer should be made by the member, having taken impartial advice, rather than be imposed in some crass one size fits all, we know what’s best for you, diktat from the nanny state.

As I previously noted the draft regulations did rather smack of an admission that the FSA was failing in its duty to regulate this particular area of advice. Rather than address that shortcoming they have tried to foist the responsibility for regulation of transfers onto pension scheme trustees through the Pension Regulator’s “guidance” framework. Some commentators had responded to this development by suggesting that it was wrong and possibly illegal for trustees to fully embrace the Pensions Regulator’s guidance on enhanced transfer value exercises. Given this, abolition may have seemed like an easy option, despite its inherent unfairness.

Yes members need protection from unscrupulous advisers but that is why we have the FSA and, from 2013, the Consumer Protection and Markets Authority. It is certainly not why we have pension scheme trustees, who have a difficult enough job to do without being forced to do the regulators’ jobs for them.

We have consistently argued that properly structured and funded enhanced transfer value exercises are a legitimate approach for employers to engage with their scheme members with a view to managing their liabilities. They also provide members with an opportunity to properly review their retirement planning with a professional adviser.

So credit where credit’s due, well done to the DWP for changing its mind on this one. It will be interesting to see if the Pension Regulator’s finalised guidance on enhanced transfer exercises will also be leavened with common sense.

Now if the DWP could only be persuaded to approach the question of GMPs in the same manner as it has recently dealt with Protected Rights – that is, just make them disappear – then that would be further evidence that, after years of languishing in neglect, common sense is unexpectedly back in vogue at Westminster.

Neil Copeland

Post by Neil Copeland

Director, pensions consultant and adviser to trustees and employers on all aspects of work based pension schemes.