Officers appointed by agents of the Pensions Regulator (TPR) could be set to swoop on office computers and company cars as part of a crackdown on companies that refuse to pay workplace pension fines.

TPR has appointed high court enforcement officers (HCEOs) who will be tasked with seizing companies’ assets should firms refuse or fail to pay fines for non-compliance with mandatory auto-enrolment duties.

Darren Ryder, TPR’s director of automatic enrolment, said these responsibilities were not optional, but laid down in law.

“Those who break the law by denying their staff the pensions they are entitled to should expect to be punished – and must pay any fines they are given,” he said.

“Auto-enrolment has been a huge success thanks to the vast majority of employers who do exactly what they should, but a tiny minority not only ignore their automatic enrolment duties but fail to pay their fines, even after the courts have ordered them to.”

By the end of 2017, TPR had taken a total of 262 employers to court for non-payment of fines. More than 32,000 employers had been issued with fixed-penalty notices by that point, and a further 6,770 had received escalating penalty notices.

“The use of HCEOs is a last resort for us,” Ryder said. “Unfortunately the behaviour of a tiny minority means it may be necessary.”

In the face of increased activity by TPR, those facing possible penalties have been urged to act.

“A key priority in the payroll profession is compliance with legislation,” said Diana Bruce, senior policy liaison officer at the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals (CIPP).

The CIPP has published links to auto-enrolment guidance for members on its website. The organisation said it would urge “any payroll agents or business advisers to run some additional checks to ensure that their clients are fully compliant and to ensure they communicate the additional consequences of non-compliance as per TPR’s update”, Bruce added.

Industry experts, however, saw the move by TPR as one designed to end the perception of the regulator as “toothless”.

“The regulator wants to be seen as being clearer, quicker and tougher – that’s its prime objective,” said Nicholas Greenacre, partner at White & Case, the global law firm.

“The wider perception – which is perhaps unfair – is that the Pensions Regulator has not been using its powers quickly enough.

“But this [should be seen] as a last resort,” he added.