UK - The number of complaints to the Pensions Ombudsman remained steady in 2008/09 at 742, despite receiving the highest level of enquiries for four years.

Figures from the Ombudsman's latest annual report and accounts showed it received 3,082 new enquiries between March 2008 and March 2009, over 500 more than the anticipated 2,500.

However only 742 of these were accepted for investigation, with 47% either referred to The Pension Advisory Service (TPAS) or directed to take the matter up with the pension scheme authorities, and a further 17% of complaints were abandoned or no action was necessary.

The majority of complaints, 240, focused on pension transfer issues such as moves between occupational defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) arrangements, while other issues included transfer delays; the benefits transferred being less than expected, or the use of penalties.

In addition ill health pensions accounted for 11% of the complaints over the year, as the issue can involve "difficult medical judgments and, often, the exercise of a discretion; and the outcome for the scheme member may be fundamental to their financial security for years to come".

The annual report confirmed, however, that for the fourth consecutive year the Ombudsman closed more cases than were opened, at 1,196, with just 30% requiring a formal determination, leaving just 476 outstanding cases at the end of March - a figure almost halved from 930 a year earlier.

Of these residual cases just 46 were over a year old reflecting the Ombudsman focus on clearing the 'backlog' of 450 cases left at the end of 2007/08, and resulting in the average length of a closed case rising to 18.5 months.

Tony King, the Pension Ombudsman, noted in his foreword that the recent economic turmoil had not directly affected the office's workload as he pointed out "falling values or weaker solvency levels are not on their own, subjects for complaint to my office". (See earlier IPE article: Downturn unlikely to drive Ombudsman complaints)

However he admitted "there may be consequences for complaint numbers in future years", as declining markets may expose administrative problems that would not otherwise have been seen, while a "more probable effect" will be complaints from people taking stock of their pensions and identifying issues that might otherwise have gone unnoticed or from problems associated with redundancy and early retirement or schemes winding up.

King added: "Without doubt the year under report has been a good year.  We have effectively disposed of the office's long-standing backlog and have substantially met our other targets for the year."

Meanwhile King, who also acts as the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) Ombudsman, revealed this office received 29 requests to review decisions made by the PPF Board and reconsideration Committee, compared with just nine the previous year.

Three requests were rejected for being out of jurisdiction or not following the proper process, while the 14 cases that were concluded - almost exclusively relating to the calculation of the PPF risk-based levy - all upheld the PPF decision.

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