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UK roundup: TPR, ONS, Towers Watson, Steve Webb

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  • UK roundup: TPR, ONS, Towers Watson, Steve Webb

UK - UK regulators have warned pension fund members about transferring assets into "highly risky or opaque" structures in an effort to access pension benefits ahead of time.

The Pensions Regulator (TPR) said it had detected an increase in early pension release offers, with the number of known transactions now amounting to nearly £200m (€236m) at the end of last year.

The regulator, alongside the Financial Services Authority and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), warned that there was no guarantee funds transferred away from existing occupational pension schemes would be returned to members.

Victoria Holmes, case team leader at TPR, said that if the offer appeared too good to be true, then it probably was, with the regulatory bodies warning of the tax payments anyone would incur through accessing savings ahead of time.

"It may simply be a scam designed to get hold of your money," she said. "Transferring your pension to one of these questionable investment models could result in you losing your entire pension."

The warning comes a few months after a High Court ruling banned pension reciprocation plans, whereby members of one scheme could lend members of a second, related scheme as much as 50% of their outstanding pension - repaid over a 20-30 year period.

HMRC pension office head Graeme Hood added that any tax relief offered on pension savings was intended to incentivise long-term savings and an income on retirement.

In other news, consultancy Towers Watson has estimated that declining pension participation has reached its nadir in the UK, with new figures by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showing that only one-third of private sector workers currently save into a pension fund.

However, this contrasted sharply with the number of public sector workers in an occupational scheme, where the figure stood at 83% - coming months after warnings from unions that changes to contribution rates, as well as public sector employment cuts, would lead to a decline in participation across the government sector.

Overall, the ONS calculated that fewer than half - only 48% - of the active workforce contributed towards a pension fund, down by 7 percentage points over 1997.

John Ball, head of UK pensions at Towers Watson, said that while participation had been decreasing over the years and was now "approaching the nadir", the imminent introduction of auto-enrolment would change the situation.

"This will be a game-changer, but it is being rolled out very slowly - for almost half of the people due to be auto-enrolled, nothing will happen for at least three years - and the minimum level of contributions has been set very low," Ball said.

He added: "An important question for [companies] will be whether the employees they sign up automatically will value the pension as much as employees who actually opted in."

Figures released by the ONS last year showed also showed that the overall number of employees saving into pensions had fallen, while a fall in the average contribution rate was predicted by the National Association of Pension Funds to be putting savers on a "collision course" towards retirement.

Finally, pensions minister Steve Webb reiterated his support for a review of the use of the consumer prices index (CPI), saying the government would be "entirely open" to discussing the inclusion of housing costs in the indexation measure.

Speaking in the House of Commons last week, Webb said he would not commit to the use of CPIH, as the measure had not yet been designed.

However, he added: "We are entirely open to considering whether that is the right measure to use when the Secretary of State decides the general increase in the cost of living for September 2013, which is when it will presumably happen."

The use of CPI as a measure of indexation has been heavily criticised and even contested in court, with a Commons debate on its use over the higher retail prices index scheduled for this week.

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