UK - The UK government must not delay the introduction of auto-enrolment, the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) has warned, saying that any change in the reform's timetable would be 'highly damaging" to retirement prospects.

The warning comes ahead the autumn budget statement by chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne and amid reports that an unpublished government paper has recommended a change to the timetable of soft compulsion for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Joanne Segars, the NAPF's chief executive, said that, while delays or exemptions for auto-enrolment might offer the government short-term political gain in the current environment of slow growth, the longer-term effects would be highly damaging.

"When it comes to pensions, the government must stick to Plan A," Segars said, referencing the term used by Osborne in regards to his economic strategy.

"These reforms are a once in a lifetime opportunity to help tackle the UK's pensions saving crisis. These reforms have been a decade in the making, and now is the time to press play, not pause."

Segars said small firms were essential to making the reforms work, noting that, of the 9m expected to enrol through the new reforms, around one-third would be employees of SMEs. 

"Exempting them or delaying their start would put them at risk of a retirement spent in poverty," Segars said.

Current timetables for auto-enrolment will see large employers affected first, from autumn next year, with SMEs only compelled by law from 2014 onward.

The confidential report, authored by Dawn Capital chairman Adrian Beecroft, was leaked to a number of national newspapers last month ahead of the NAPF's annual conference.

At the time, former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling said that, while government was "of course" considering delaying the timetable, a delay of longer than 12 months would be fatal.

"If you put this off for more than a year, you are effectively saying 'it ain't gonna happen'," he said, adding that it was a "huge plank of the architecture" agreed in the Turner Report and that abandoning it would be a mistake.

"Frankly, auto-enrolment is not going to make the difference to our economy recovering or not," he said. "We've got far, far bigger problems than that."

Asked about the rumours directly at the same conference, pensions minister Steve Webb, however, was adamant that the 2012 reforms would indeed take place in 2012.