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UK regulator suggests new scheme-sponsor separation mechanism

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The UK pensions regulator has floated the idea of allowing stressed pension schemes to be separated from the employer on the basis of scheme viability rather than the risk of employer insolvency.

Responding to the government’s review of defined benefit (DB) scheme regulation, the Pensions Regulator (TPR) said it might “be worth exploring” whether there was room for a mechanism allowing for such a separation.

Currently, UK law allows for a sponsoring employer to cut its financial obligations to a scheme if this would avoid the company becoming insolvent. The statutory mechanism for this is a regulated apportionment arrangement (RAA), which must be approved by TPR and the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) and satisfy certain conditions.

RAAs are rare, but have grabbed headlines in the past few months. The UK arm of household appliances company Hoover agreed an RAA , which was at risk of insolvency as a result of the funding needs of the pension scheme.

The scheme is poised to enter the PPF, with benefit cuts of 10% for members who have not yet retired.

RAA deals have also been struck in full or in principle with Halcrow and Tata Steel UK, but in these cases the arrangement involved the creation of a new scheme that will operate outside the PPF.

In TPR’s mind the proposed new mechanism would be separate from and additional to its power to wind up a scheme when it becomes clear the scheme may never be able to meet its funding obligations.

On its wind-up power, TPR called for these to be revisited “to allow us to take into account all our objectives which are relevant to DB when considering to exercise it”.

In its response to the government’s DB green paper, the regulator also called for more powers in relation to scheme funding and information gathering, and for the requirement for a trustee board chair’s statement to be extended to DB and hybrid schemes.

“Being able to set clearer standards and to shift our dynamic with all of our regulated community so that we can monitor against those standards on an ongoing basis, not just when a breach is detected, is essential to our being a more proactive regulator,” it said

In relation to scheme funding, TPR advocated it being given the power to set binding standards in detailed codes or guidance, supported by a legally enforceable “comply or explain” regime.

The regulator also said there was a case for more powers to encourage employers to make higher deficit repair contributions where they can afford to do so.

TPR called for more comprehensive interview and inspection powers for information-gathering purposes, and the ability to impose civil penalties in addition to criminal penalties for non-compliance with information requests.

On consolidation, TPR said it supported a voluntary approach. Extending the requirement for a trustee board chair’s statement combined with a legal requirement for trustees to update on what they are doing to control costs could provide a significant impetus, it added.

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