All 2 Baroness Noakes contributions to the Pension Schemes Act 2021

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Tue 28th Jan 2020
Pension Schemes Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading
Tue 30th Jun 2020
Pension Schemes Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage

Pension Schemes Bill [HL]

Baroness Noakes Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading (Hansard)
Tuesday 28th January 2020

(4 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, it is some time since I have spoken on a pensions Bill. Indeed, I think the last occasion may well have been when the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, was sitting in the place now occupied by my noble friend the Minister and I was sitting where the noble Lord now sits. I particularly recall many hours late into the night spent debating the powers of the Pensions Regulator in the Pensions Act 2008. I shall return to that when I speak about Part 3 later in my speech.

I shall start with collective defined contribution schemes. These account for more than half the pages in this quite long Bill. We are promised large volumes of delegated legislation to follow. I have no particular objection to CDC schemes, but the plain fact is that this extraordinarily complex legislation is being introduced to accommodate just one employer, namely Royal Mail. Despite a wide-ranging consultation and exposure in the specialist media, there has been absolutely no other corporate interest in CDC schemes. Other private sector companies have transitioned in whole or in part from their DB schemes unaided and it is far from clear to me that this is a good use of government and parliamentary time.

Nevertheless, now that we have the Bill, I would like to raise one question with the Minister. The Government have been clear that they wish to ensure that pension freedoms are available to members of CDC schemes as they are to members of other schemes. At one level, that sounds perfectly okay, but I am concerned about the impact that this might have on the notion of shared risk, which is an intrinsic part of CDC schemes. My particular focus is on longevity risk.

Pension freedoms are not always used wisely, but one clear beneficial use case—it applies even to defined benefit schemes—concerns members whose health status means that they can do better by removing their funds and purchasing an impaired life annuity. If members of CDC schemes in this situation acted rationally and took their share of the assets out of the scheme, that could well disadvantage the remaining members. The average life expectancy of those remaining would increase and, all other things being equal, the benefits payable to them would reduce. Are the Government comfortable with this outcome, in effect allowing selective risk-sharing under this new arrangement? This is a subset of the wider issue of intergenerational fairness, which has been raised by other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey.

I now turn to Part 3 and the Pensions Regulator. I thank the Association of Pension Lawyers for its analysis of the new offences, which I know has already been provided to the Minister’s officials. Very briefly, its concerns relate to the scope of the new criminal offences set out in Clause 107, the meaning of “likelihood” and “materiality” in that clause, and the way in which the reasonable excuse defence will work.

When the Government first announced these new offences, they were explained in terms of people running their companies into the ground. It often happens that, when legal draftsmen get to work, an intuitively reasonable proposal ends up being so wide that it can trap the unwary. The issues that have been raised are serious and I hope the Minister will be able to allay the fears expressed. In doing so, I hope that she will not simply fall back on the courts acting reasonably in interpreting the new offences. If we have to wait until we get a body of case law, which could take a decade or more, that will mean major uncertainty for the business community.

I have a separate question for the Minister on Part 3, concerning the new financial penalties of up to £1 million in Clause 115. I support the principle of the Pensions Regulator being able to take swift action, but such powers carry dangers, especially when used against those concerned with the pension funds of smaller companies. I would like to understand what checks and balances exist within the system to ensure that this power is used in a proportionate way. Can a person in receipt of a financial penalty challenge the Pensions Regulator? Will there be an opportunity for an appeal to an independent body? This is particularly important because the invocation of the penalty powers involves several key judgments, including materiality and likelihood, just like the criminal offences, but there is no court to interpret them. The Minister will know that something more accessible than judicial review is needed because in practice that is simply not available for those with limited resources.

My last topic is the pensions dashboard in Part 4. I have to say that this is at best a half-baked policy. We have no idea exactly how this will work. Part 4 is littered with rule-making powers which may well tell us in due course what is involved. The impact assessment has a huge range of potential costs between £0.5 billion and £2 billion over 10 years. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe referred to the figure of £1 billion, but it is over £2 billion if you take the set-up costs and the ongoing costs over the first 10 years. If this were a business proposition, it would be sent away and told not to come back until the costs and precise impacts had been precisely worked up. Furthermore, benefits have not been clearly identified and the impact assessment admits that the behavioural impacts are “highly uncertain”. I do not doubt that having 10 or 11 jobs over a working life means that keeping track of pension entitlements is a problem. But I am far from clear that the dashboard is the answer and we are no further forward in giving people access to advice, as opposed to guidance, on what to do when faced with the information that the dashboard contains.

I have long thought that a more sensible approach would be to facilitate the consolidation of pension pots, which means tackling the cost and bureaucracy involved when people attempt to do that for themselves. Switching bank accounts has been made pain free for consumers but there has been no equivalent for pensions. I completely accept that the issues are far more complex for pensions than for bank accounts; equally, the industry has no real interest in solving this problem. The Government would be doing pension savers a great service if they set their sights a bit higher than this dashboard.

Pension Schemes Bill [HL]

Baroness Noakes Excerpts
Report stage & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 30th June 2020

(4 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Pension Schemes Act 2021 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 104-I Marshalled list for Report - (25 Jun 2020)
Moved by
46: Clause 107, page 90, line 36, at end insert “, and
(d) the person was—(i) an employer in relation to the scheme, or(ii) a person connected with or an associate of the employer.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment confines the criminal offences in Clause 107 to persons connected with the pension scheme employer.
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, in moving Amendment 46, I shall also speak to Amendments 47 to 49, which are in my name and those of my noble friends Lady Altmann and Lady Neville-Rolfe. There was a wide-ranging debate in Committee on the two new criminal offences and two new financial penalty powers in Clause 107. Unfortunately, I was unable to be present for that debate, but my amendments were moved by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, and I have read the record in Hansard.

The scope of the offences and penalties is very widely drawn and, while they do not apply if there is a “reasonable excuse”, there is no clarification of that term in the legislation. My noble friend Lord Howe spoke at length and helpfully in Committee, but it remains the case that there is considerable anxiety from pensions professionals and from companies about the impact of these provisions on ordinary commercial transactions. In Committee, the Government resisted attempts to define “reasonable excuse” and preferred to leave this to non-binding guidance from the Pensions Regulator—that may or may not be forthcoming as there is no obligation on the regulator to produce any guidance—and ultimately to the decision of the courts. We therefore have the classic formula for uncertainty for all those who might be affected by Clause 107, and that uncertainty could of course last many years, until enough cases establish the boundaries of the new offences and penalties.

My amendments today take a different approach from that in Committee and seek to limit the offences and penalties in the same way as the contribution notice regime in the Pensions Act 2004—namely, to the employer or to an associate or connected person of the employer. In Committee, my noble friend Lord Howe gave some examples of the people that the Government intended to be covered by Clause 107. On my reading of the scope of the contribution notice regime, all those mentioned by my noble friend would indeed have been covered by the amendment. If the Government think that the contribution notice’s scope is inadequate, I would have expected them to amend that scope in this Bill; after all, the contribution notices are there to make sure that defined benefit schemes are adequately funded. Criminal penalties and financial sanctions might make everyone feel better, but they do nothing directly to protect scheme funding.

I suspect that the Government intend these new provisions to apply to more people than are covered by contribution notices. In that case, it would seem to me essential that the Government set out clearly who they want to be covered by Clause 107. It cannot be right to create criminal offences without such clarity. However, even if the Government will not do that, I hope that the Minister can be clear about who they do not intend to be covered by Clause 107.

I shall concentrate my remarks on two groups—lenders and landlords—but the problem is wider and extends to all commercial counterparties. I should at this stage declare my interests as recorded in the register, including my directorship of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

I start with an employer who has a loan from a bank. That could fall due for repayment, because its term has ended or covenants have been breached. If the bank seeks repayment of a loan or decides not to renew it, that may cause financial difficulties for the employer. At one end of the spectrum, it could impair the employer’s ability to continue to trade as a going concern. In less extreme cases, it could impact, for example, the employer’s ability to meet payments under an agreed deficit repair plan. In either case, the result is material detriment within the terms of Clause 107. A bank should be well aware of this, because lenders have to know basic financial facts about their customers, including their pension commitments. That is clear within the language of Clause 107, but is it what the Government intend? If not, will the Minister say that clearly?

Similarly, a landlord may decline to renew a lease or decide to enforce early termination due to breaches of covenants. This can cause or amplify financial stress in an employer and have a knock-on impact on its ability to support its related defined benefit scheme. Is the landlord within these new offences and penalties or not? In the case of landlords and banks, there is no commercial or other nexus between them and the defined benefit scheme, yet they are drawn within the net of Clause 107 because their actions or conducts could indirectly impact the benefits payable by the scheme.

I remind my noble friend that we have not even begun to see the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses. The wonderful financial support provided by the Government in these early days of the pandemic will soon come to an end. Many businesses will be facing an uncertain future and are likely to have taken on additional debt. They may need more debt to survive. Many have chosen not to make quarterly rent payments this year. Their pension scheme deficits will almost certainly have worsened, due to extremely low interest rates and weak asset prices—a double whammy. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, referred to this in an earlier group of amendments. Banks and landlords will be making big decisions about enforcing existing loans or leases, as well as making new ones.

The impact could go beyond concerns about particular commercial transactions, with a chilling effect more widely. Defined benefit scheme employers may well become untouchables as counterparties, if there is major uncertainty about the implications for those who deal with them. My preference would have been for the Government to be clear about what counts as a reasonable excuse for the purposes of Clause 107. My Amendments 46 to 49 have instead concentrated on the persons who are intended to be covered by the new offences and penalties in order to invite the Government to provide certainty to third parties about whether they can expect to be covered by Clause 107. I beg to move.

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It is clear that the majority of those involved with pension schemes want to do right by the members. However, I hope no one would disagree with the proposition that there should be sufficient safeguards to protect members’ pensions from the minority who are willing to put them at risk. If the scope of the offences as introduced in Clause 107 were to be narrowed, then the deterrent and the safeguards provided by the offences would, without a shadow of a doubt, be weakened. With that in mind, and in coming back again to the point I made a moment ago that this is in no way about trying to frustrate legitimate business activities conducted in good faith, I would hope that my noble friend feels sufficiently reassured to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes
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My Lords, I first thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I was pleased to get support from my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe, Lady Altmann and Lord Trenchard.

I am grateful for what my noble friend the Minister has said, in particular that Clause 107 is not aimed at legitimate business activities conducted in good faith. He went on to say that there were other activities which might harm the defined benefit scheme but that they would be caught only to the extent that there was not a reasonable excuse. We will come back to that being the heart of the problem because there is no real comfort about what is included in “reasonable excuse”. We are invited to rely on future guidance on prosecution issued by the Pensions Regulator and guidance on how the regulator would approach the reasonable excuse.

I say to my noble friend that the pensions advisory industry has not always found guidance issued by the regulator helpful in guiding, as opposed to giving warnings about what the Pensions Regulator does not like. I do not think there is a lot of hope that that guidance will necessarily put an end to the uncertainty—and, at the end of the day, we are left with major uncertainty hanging over business until cases come before the courts and we see what the Pensions Regulator does in practice.

Having said that, as my noble friend knows, I never intended to divide the House and am grateful for what he has been able to say today. I will want to reflect on it further with those who have helpfully provided briefing on this. I know that some parts of the industry may want to stay in dialogue with the Government as the Bill goes forward. We will obviously have Third Reading in your Lordships’ House, but the Bill is a Lords starter and it will be taken in another place. So, while for today I will withdraw my amendment, and while I believe that we have made a lot of progress, we may not have made quite enough in making people comfortable that the range of transactions which could potentially be caught by this will not unintentionally fall within the ambit of Clause 107. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 46 withdrawn.
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I hope that my noble friend will feel able to reassure the House or even perhaps accept Amendment 50, if not now then perhaps at Third Reading. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, on tabling these amendments. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes
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I shall be brief. I indicated that I want to speak on these amendments because I am concerned about the impact that they would have on companies’ ordinary transactions. Part of the problem would be that there is no distinction between ordinary dividends and something that might be regarded as an excessive dividend.

The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, has taken the approach of saying that share buybacks are always less common and always have to be referred to the regulator but other distributions of capital by way of dividend are not. Life is never that simple; if you are sitting in a boardroom deciding on dividend policy, there is clearly an approach to ordinary ongoing dividends. Then there is what you do with surplus capital, which can go by way of either a special dividend or a share buyback. I do not know how this amendment could possibly differentiate between those.

When one gets into the detail of Amendment 51, which tries to set a level at which so-called ordinary dividends would trigger the potential interest of the regulator, we could potentially get into problems. I do not think that it would be healthy to have major uncertainty hanging over companies undertaking their ordinary approach to the distribution of profits alongside what might well already be a well-defined deficit repair plan with contributions already agreed with the pension trustees, and then have something on top be required to go to the Pensions Regulator. The definition of what the regulator should be interested in will end up with a lot of things being notified to the regulator that, frankly, cause no concern at all. I do not think that that is an efficient way to approach life.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe [V]
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The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, has adapted his amendments to meet some of the concerns that we all expressed in Committee, for which I thank him, but I am afraid that I am still not happy with the two amendments that he has tabled. For example, nearly all pension schemes are in deficit. Amendment 50 would allow the Pensions Regulator basically to stop all buybacks, which is a matter not for this Bill but for a governance Bill—following proper review and consultation—because buybacks can be justified in some circumstances and we have not had a chance to debate that.

The coronavirus measures, with which a parallel was drawn, are unique and different—that has been made clear in parliamentary agreement to them—so it is better to leave the arrangements to ministerial discretion, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, suggested. We have to remember that, however good the regulator is, he or she introduces delay and uncertainty, so we need to make sure that the powers are used with care.