Julian Knight is MP for Solihull and a former BBC News personal finance and consumer affairs reporter.
While the focus is on the state pension once again with proposals to end the horrendously expensive triple lock, government shouldn’t forget the role it can play in reforming and strengthening workplace pensions.
It is almost impossible to believe now, but at the tail end of the last century many firms were actively encouraged to take a holiday from paying into their staff pensions because the funds were considered so cash rich.
Now, nearly two decades on it is increasingly being proposed that firms be effectively offered another holiday – this time in terms of being able to dilute pension scheme member benefits by breaking inflation linkage for instance – because their funds are now considered so poorly funded. In fact according to Hyman Robertson combined scheme deficits now stand at £937bn.
There are many, many reasons why workplace pensions have gone from prince to pauper but the key is what should be done, is it the right move to effectively give scheme sponsors what equates to another pension holiday?
Now first, let’s get something straight: figures like £937bn are a snapshot. I believe we can close this deficit with a return to what I call sound money: an end to QE, artificially low interest rates and gilt yields, and re-establishing the link between Bank of England interest rates, pricing, and what you and I actually pay to borrow and receive in savings.
This re-adjustment will happen, but it won’t be enough. However to allow schemes to cut member benefits, even for those who are 20 or 30 years from retirement, would be a disaster. It would represent a betrayal, and millions of people will find that the pension they thought they had coming will be nowhere near as big.
So can’t they work longer? But in the real world, we already know that on average people stop work several years before state pension age due to ill health, technological changes, and frankly ageism, which is endemic. To allow these people to have their pensions cut isn’t acceptable and would be a false economy, as it merely transfers responsibility onto the state in terms of higher means tested benefits.
It is also fundamentally against conservative principle to allow dilution of scheme benefits. It will mean sponsoring employers had enjoyed the commercial benefit of giving their staff the promise of a guaranteed pension, without then having to pay for it. This would be unfair on their competitors who chose not to make such expensive promises in order to recruit, reward, and retain their staff.
So how can we as a Government help employers meet their pension costs? We need to set the sector free.
There are 93,099 members of schemes with fewer than 100 members, according to the Pension Protection Fund (PPF). If all these members were consolidated into one large scheme it could potentially save £81 million a year in administration costs – an estimated saving of over £2 billion after 20 years according to broker Hargreaves Lansdown.
Every pound saved by reducing administrative, legal, actuarial, and consultancy fees reduces the overall deficits.
Economies of scale can also help in another crucial way by enabling up these schemes to invest in infrastructure. The consolidated LGPS schemes ,and one or two other large schemes such as the PPF and the Universities Superannuation Scheme, have done so but overall infrastructure investing by UK pension schemes remains very low.
It is much to my chagrin for example that Birmingham airport, on the edge of my Solihull constituency, is owned by the Ontario teachers pension scheme, so the steady sure yield that the our airport gives goes overseas to keep Canadian pensioners rather than British ones.