Annual reports from the independent governance committees (IGCs) of many UK contract-based pension providers suggest the groups are not living up to their purpose of protecting savers’ interests, an investment campaign organisation has argued.

Pressure group ShareAction analysed the 2017 annual reports of 16 IGCs and found that many were vague and offered only unsubstantiated claims that savers’ interests were being protected. This was despite examples of innovation by some IGCs.

In a number of cases, the reports did not provide enough information to enable savers to understand the value for money they were getting, said ShareAction.

Nearly a third of the reports – from the IGCs of Aegon, BlackRock, Fidelity, Virgin and Zurich – did not state how much their workplace pension provider charged savers. Nearly half of the IGCs – Aegon, BlackRock, Fidelity, Old Mutual Wealth, Phoenix Life, Prudential and Zurich – did not report data on how well savers’ investments were performing.

ShareAction said it recognised that transparency and effectiveness of reporting were not necessarily a reflection on how well an IGC was performing its underlying role, but highlighted that the annual report was the only resource a scheme member had for assessing an IGC’s performance.

“The IGC reports play an important role in increasing transparency, accountability and, ultimately, the value for money a scheme member receives,” the pressure group said. “If an IGC has done an excellent job in scrutinising a pension provider but its reporting of this is poor, this would still mean that the FCA’s policy intention has not fully been met.”

“We found that overall IGCs are acting in accordance with their terms of reference, by influencing, supporting and advancing the significant reduction in costs and charges that have been achieved”

FCA spokeswoman

In 2015 the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) required contract-based pension providers to set up IGCs to address poor consumer outcomes in pensions.

ShareAction noted that the regulator had “indefinitely abandoned” a review of IGCs’ effectiveness in May last year, and called on the FCA to do more. The campaign group recommended it issue further guidance on reporting costs and charges, which could reference output of its institutional disclosure working group, and consider developing its rules for IGCs. The FCA could also issue best practice guidance with a view to offering IGCs greater clarity, the group said.   

Catherine Howarth, chief executive of ShareAction, said: “IGCs were a good idea but the FCA made the wrong call in abandoning indefinitely its promised review of their effectiveness.

“We hope this study will prompt the FCA to refocus attention on the interests of UK pension savers who remain vulnerable in a market characterised by consumer detriment and information asymmetry.”

A spokeswoman for the FCA said: “The FCA remains focused on ensuring consumers are protected. Through work we have already undertaken, we found that overall IGCs are acting in accordance with their terms of reference, by influencing, supporting and advancing the significant reduction in costs and charges that have been achieved.”

The FCA was in the process of carrying out a number of other pieces of work that impact IGCs, she added. For example, it had recently published a discussion paper regarding the UK’s third-pillar system that asked whether independent governance could play a role. The regulator was also considering what form of rule changes might be appropriate to address Law Commission proposals on pension funds and social investment, the spokeswoman added.  

The FCA and social investment

In June, the Law Commission — a non-political body advising on legal reform — reported that it had found structural and behavioural barriers to social investment within the pensions industry, and that the government and regulators could take steps to lift these.

Andrew Bailey, FCA

Andrew Bailey, FCA chief executive

In a letter made public by the government last week, FCA chief executive Andrew Bailey said that the regulator was considering the Law Commission’s proposal that IGCs report on a firm’s policy on stewardship as part of its work on the Shareholder Rights Directive. The FCA would consider whether or not to issue guidance on financial and non-financial factors for firms operating workplace pension schemes, Bailey added.

The regulator also said it would consider what rule changes would be appropriate to require IGCs to report on firms’ policies in relation to evaluating long-term risks such as sustainability, and to consider members’ ethical concerns.

ShareAction said its research found that two IGC reports – those for providers Aviva and Legal & General – referred to investment-related environmental, social and governance risks and opportunities in their reports.

In its June report the Law Commission had also said the FCA and The Pensions Regulator should consider providing further guidance on how pension schemes can manage illiquid investments such as infrastructure.

In the FCA’s letter – addressed to Elizabeth Corley, vice-chair of Allianz Global Investors and chair of a government-appointed advisory group on social impact investing – Bailey said current rules did not require daily pricing and both investment funds and workplace pension schemes using unit-linked structures were already able to manage some element of illiquid investment within their funds.

The recent emergence of investment trusts with an impact investing mandate, a number of charity bonds and traditional open-ended funds indicated that the existing regulatory framework allowed for investment products with a social angle, he added. It would nonetheless consider whether any changes were necessary to its rules and guidance to address concerns in this area.

ShareAction’s report can be found here.