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Berkshire rejects disclosure of council tax data in pension scheme funding

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UK – The percentage of local taxes used to fund public pension schemes form a "meaningless statistic" and should not be prominently disclosed, according to a report compiled by the administering authority of the Royal County of Berkshire's £1.5bn (€1.8bn) pension fund.

Responding to a Pensions Institute report from November that claimed there were "fundamental" flaws in the governance arrangements of London's Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS), Berkshire pension fund manager Nick Greenwood said the suggestion that schemes should prominently disclose certain information – including recovery period, funding position and employer contribution levels – was a sound one.

He recommended the Berkshire scheme begin disclosing most of the suggested data in a comprehensive table attached to its regular stewardship reports.

"Should other administering authorities follow suit, then we will be able to better benchmark the fund against other LGPS," he said.

Greater comparability was one of the main aims behind more coordinated disclosure of the more than a dozen key figures, as suggested by the Pensions Institute report.

It argued last November that an individual fund summary – disclosing asset manager turnover, mortality, inflation and discount rate assumptions and other points – should be prepared by all funds.

"This summary could be submitted to a central body, so that it can be consolidated in a single document and made available on a central website," it said.

Debbie Harrison, senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School's Pensions Institute and one of the initial report's co-authors, told IPE Berkshire's response represented a "very strong endorsement" of the institute's findings.

"Berkshire pension fund is to be congratulated in considering this move," she said. "I hope others will follow its lead in establishing a voluntary trend towards better disclosure of key data."

Greenwood's report noted that Berkshire already calculated and disclosed its funding ratio on a monthly basis, as proposed by the Pensions Institute, and was therefore already "ahead of the game".

"Officers acknowledge that many funds only calculate liabilities every three years and do not have access to intra-valuation estimates but believe that if Berkshire publishes these numbers other funds will follow suit."

But he said disclosure of the nominal discount rate was "meaningless" without also stating the fund's real rate, minus inflation.

"Additional value would be added by explicitly stating the real interest rate used in the actuarial valuations, as liability values are sensitive to changes in real interest rate assumptions," he said.

The report also backed the inclusion of employer contribution rates.

"This should be disclosed as the common contribution rate separated between future service and deficit recovery," Greenwood said, noting that contribution rates for individual employers was already published as part of the scheme's annual financial statement.

However, the report by Berkshire dismissed the proposal to disclose the amount of council tax used to pay for pension scheme funding, as the percentage was a "meaningless statistic", as Councils have "a number of sources of income".

Harrison said: "The issue of council tax is complex, and the extent to which local government pension funds draw on this resource will vary considerably.

"Without aggregate and, importantly, scheme-specific data, it is impossible to judge whether this is a problem, which is why I would like the subject to be put on the agenda for a government, stakeholder and wider public debate."

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM), Berkshire's administering authority, said it would be likely to agree to the fourth successive cut to council tax rates this week.

The 3% cut comes at time when any council looking to increase rates above 2% is required by law to put the raise to a vote.

The amount of council tax spent on deficit reduction is often used by pressure groups – such as the right-leaning Taxpayers' Alliance – to attack the local government pillar's supposed cost to the state.

RBWM's council tax cut would appear to be at odds with suggestions that council tax receipts are sometimes diverted to fund local authority funds.

Berkshire's funding level has fallen since its last triennial valuation in March 2010 – when it stood at 81% – to an estimated 78%, according to the 2011-12 annual report.

The fund was the first local authority to agree a longevity swap in 2009 and last April began a search to appoint a longevity hedge provider in an effort to protect itself against liability fluctuations.

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