In April this year the DWP launched the snappily titled public consultation ‘The draft Occupational Pension Schemes (Employer Debt) (Amendment) Regulations 2017’. The consultation, which closed on the 18th May, was looking to make suggestions to deal with the perennial issue of Section 75 debts. A Section 75 debt triggers when an employer ceases to have active employees in a multi-employer scheme while other employers still do.
All very interesting (or not) but what does this have to do with LGPS you may ask, especially given neither the Section 75 legislation nor the DWP consultation actually cover LGPS? However while Section 75 legislation may not specifically apply to LGPS the principles on exit / cessation and the issues the consultation is looking to address are pretty much the same. In fact some of the specifics of LGPS actually make the options for employers even more restrictive than in other ME schemes.
The consistent issue is that neither multi-employer defined benefit schemes (MEDBS) or LGPS have a mechanism to allow participants to cease building up benefits for all members without automatically trggering a debt at that point. This is a mechanism available in standalone and segmented multi-employer schemes allowing employers and trustees to more effectively manage risk. The lack of this option encourages participants to continue to build up additional benefits for staff way beyond the point where they are affordable, placing their very existence at risk, reducing the covenant of member benefits and risking placing an additional burden on other organisations who participate in the scheme. Legislation as it sits at the moment not only limits an employer’s ability to manage this risk but also ties the hands of those running the pension scheme.
Many employers are now facing a cliff edge as their membership numbers fall. Many recognised the risk and associated costs of DB provision and closed their schemes to new entrants. This just makes a movement towards ultimate cessation inevitable as eventually they will run out of active members. Research recently carried out by the Scottish Government in relation to Scottish LGPS has highlighted this wall of risk and Funds throughout the rest of the UK will be no different.
A way that many private sector MEDBS have looked to deal with the issue is either to close to future accrual for all employers simultaneously or to add a defined contribution scheme under the same trust as the defined benefit scheme thereby allowing employers to have active participation but to have stopped accruing further DB liabilities. Unfortunately neither of these solutions is open to LGPS employers.
In one of my previous Bulletins ‘An Alternative Approach’ I highlighted the potential impact of the timing of this debt trigger and how this was effectively a one-sided equation stacked in favour of the Fund and unfortunately an equation that many admitted bodies are unaware of until it’s too late.
The DWP Consultation sought comments on a potential solution called a deferred debt arrangement (‘DDA’) which would allow employers to cease further DB benefit accrual and continue to fund the scheme without triggering the S75 debt. Employers would retain all the same obligations towards the debt and scheme to protect members and the Trustees but it would permit a more practical and orderly exit from DB accrual.
There does seem to be consensus at this stage that something does need to be done, though some variation in the mechanism to achieve it. I can only hope that we get some practical and workable proposals out of the consultation and that it is more widely applied covering LGPS. Action needs to be taken now but given our current political environment and the Governmental focus on Brexit it would be a brave man to predict we will see anything substantive in terms of legislation in the short term, let alone seeing it extended to LGPS, even though in my view it quite clearly should be.