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A group of British politicians have called for radical reform of the defined benefit (DB) sector to avoid future scheme failures.

The Work and Pensions Committee has called for a series of new powers for the Pensions Regulator (TPR), including “nuclear deterrent” fines to force employers to confront their pension shortfalls.

The proposed reforms come as TPR is attempting to resolve the future of the British Homes Stores (BHS) pension scheme, and the saga formed the backdrop to the inquiry.

Frank Field, chair of the committee, argued that many of the proposals would have prevented the scheme from developing a large deficit and facing being absorbed into the Pension Protection Fund (PPF).

Field said: “We hope and expect we will never again see a company like BHS be able to come up with a 23-year recovery plan for its pension fund, and certainly not that it would take the regulator two years to really begin to do anything about it.”

Among the committee’s proposals are:

  • “Nuclear deterrent” powers for TPR to fine employers three times a pension fund’s deficit if it refuses to engage with trustees;
  • TPR to be given powers to intervene in corporate actions if they are perceived to threaten a pension fund;
  • The establishment of an “aggregator fund” to take on small pension funds – potentially to be run by the PPF;
  • An overhaul of the “regulated apportionment arrangement” framework to make it easier for schemes to separate from employers where appropriate;
  • The introduction of a form of conditional indexation to allow stressed schemes to reduce liabilities;
  • An extension of DB members’ ability to take their benefits as lump sums.

“To prevent another BHS, we need to have the means to nip inevitable disasters like this one in the bud,” Field added. “We hope the government will consult on the package of measures we propose, which would go a long way, without resorting to any new reams of red tape, towards doing just that.”

Next year, the government will publish a green paper aimed at pension reform, according to the pensions minister Richard Harrington.

TPR criticism

The committee’s report criticised TPR’s approach to stressed schemes and anti-avoidance, arguing that it seemed “reluctant” to use some of its powers.

The committee added: “We get the impression [TPR] can be somewhat aloof in dealing with trustees when it is well placed to provide timely, informal guidance.”

TPR has announced a review of its regulatory approach.

Chris Martin, an independent trustee and chair of the BHS trustee board, told the committee: “I have a definite sense that there is sometimes a reluctance to use the powers because it might provoke challenge. To my mind, a regulator should be challenged. It develops [the] use of its powers by being challenged.”

Lesley Titcomb, TPR chief executive, said: “We note [the] recommendations and will consider them carefully. We continue to discuss options with the Department for Work and Pensions for the legislative and regulatory framework for workplace pensions, and how this might be improved, ahead of the green paper, which will consider the future of pension funding, the regulatory framework and TPR’s powers.”

Intervention powers

TPR should be able to intervene and stop corporate-level activity by a scheme’s sponsor if it is judged to be a threat to the funding of the scheme, the report said. This would include mergers, acquisitions and dividend payments.

Given such powers, the politicians argued, TPR could have prevented the sale of BHS last year without a plan to fund the pension scheme.

However, in her evidence to the committee, Titcomb warned that such powers would have “resource implications” for the regulator.

“Granting TPR the power to block a corporate transaction was ‘superficially attractive’, but the situations in which it applied would need to be ‘very tightly defined’,” the report said.

The regulator should also be “tougher” on schemes’ deficit-recovery plans, the report said – “it should not be shy or slow in imposing a contribution schedule when a sponsor is not taking its responsibilities seriously.”

The committee added: “There is clear evidence many sponsors could give greater immediate support to their pension schemes.”

The PPF

Also among the committee’s recommendations was the introduction of an “aggregator fund” to aid small schemes that struggle to get access to buyout.

The report said there was a “very strong case” for creating a vehicle to consolidate such schemes, potentially to be run by the PPF.

As well as Harrington, former pensions ministers Steve Webb and Baroness Ros Altmann backed the concept.

Harrington said the fund would not cut pension payments (as the PPF does with non-retired members), and would provide benefits of scale and “a chance of getting better returns”.

Alan Rubenstein, chief executive of the PPF, told MPs his organisation was willing to take on the task if requested.

However, he warned that the details of an aggregator fund would be difficult to iron out because of differing funding levels and the need for deficits to be closed.

Joanne Segars, chief executive of the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association (PLSA), backed consolidation plans. She said: “As the committee recognises, creating consolidators is a complex task where the details matter. We are actively investigating the pros and cons of the spectrum of consolidation options including an aggregator fund or funds model.”

The PLSA’s DB Taskforce is to publish its own recommendations in March.

Responding to the report this morning, Rubenstein said: “We’re pleased to see that a number of our suggestions have been taken on board, particularly around anti-avoidance fines to improve oversight of corporate transactions.

“The recommendations of this considered report are timely and will hopefully set the standards for companies to ensure their pension scheme members are protected now and in the future. We will give full consideration to those recommendations which relate to the PPF.”

The full report is available on the committee’s website.

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