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IPE special report May 2018

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PLSA challenges government over DB affordability

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The UK’s pension scheme trade body has disputed a government assertion that there is no affordability crisis in the country’s defined benefit (DB) sector.

The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association (PLSA) was responding to a wide-ranging consultation about the future of DB pension provision, issued by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) earlier this year. The deadline for responses was 14 May.

The DWP said in February: “The available evidence does not appear to support the view that these pensions are generally ‘unaffordable’ for employers. While DB pensions are more expensive than they were when they were originally set up, many employers could clear their pension deficit if required.”

However, the PLSA argued in its response – published this morning – that two groups of schemes deemed to have the weakest sponsor covenants had only a 50% chance of reaching fully funded status in the next 30 years. The weakest group had only a 32% chance. These schemes accounted for three million members, the PLSA said.

“The analysis carried out by the [PLSA’s] DB Taskforce and feedback from our members indicates that the affordability challenges facing DB schemes and employers are much more significant than the position set out in the green paper,” the trade body said.

“Some of the analysis presented appears overly optimistic. In particular, the assumption that employers can continue to pay deficit reduction contributions at current levels for the foreseeable future, given the wider economic challenges.”

The PLSA called for the DWP, the Pensions Regulator (TPR), and the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) to undertake more work to understand “the extent of risks in the system”.

The PPF’s latest data indicated that more than three quarters of private sector DB schemes were in deficit at the end of April. The aggregate deficit across all 5,794 schemes the data covered was £245.6bn (€289.2bn), compared to £189bn a year earlier.

Elsewhere in its response, the PLSA supported the DWP’s proposal for more powers to be granted to the regulator, but said such a decision “needs to be proportionate to the risks they seek to address and enforceable in practice”.

TPR should take more of a supervisory role, the PLSA argued, focusing its attention on the quality of scheme governance and the standards of trustees.

“This would enable the regulator to focus its resource on supervising who does the governing and on its enforcement activity where it needs to intervene, rather than the rules schemes follow and decisions they make,” the PLSA said.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties have pledged extra powers for TPR in their manifestos ahead of the UK general election on 8 June.

The DWP’s investigation and consultation followed a number of high-profile DB pension scheme cases, primarily concerning BHS’s funds and the British Steel Pension Scheme.

The DWP’s green paper on the security and sustainability of DB schemes is available here.

The PLSA’s response is available here.

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