King Charles is preparing to give the first King’s speech in more than 70 years. His speech will set out the government’s legislative priorities for the next 12 months. Pensions are expected to be front and centre with King Charles to confirm controversial plans to drive higher levels of investment in private equity.
Tom Selby, head of retirement policy at AJ Bell, comments:
“Today’s King’s speech is set to confirm key elements of the government’s so-called ‘Mansion House’ reforms, a sprawling package of measures focused on people’s workplace pensions with two central aims: to increase scale and encourage these schemes to invest more of members’ money in private equity.
The government argues this can be a win-win for savers and UK Plc. It says pension pots could potentially be boosted over the long-term by higher returns, while the country as a whole will benefit from capital being deployed into more productive areas. This idea, of course, assumes any extra private equity exposure will be predominantly UK-focused and that the returns from this extra allocation will outstrip what could have otherwise been earned from more mainstream investments.
The chancellor even went as far as claiming people would get pensions worth £1,000 a year more in retirement as a result of the reforms. While it is possible the utopian picture set out by Jeremy Hunt will become reality, there are no guarantees.
The danger is the gamble simply doesn’t pay off and savers end up with smaller pensions than would have been the case if they had stuck with the approach originally agreed by their independent trustees. Were this scenario to play out, the decision to conflate government efforts to boost long-term UK growth with the goals of pension savers, who will likely be more interested in maximising the size of their retirement pot, will be viewed as a foolish one.”
Consolidating small pension pots
“Automatic enrolment has been hugely successful in boosting the number of people saving at least something for retirement. However, the reforms have also exacerbated the small pots problem, with the number of pensions becoming disconnected from their owners ballooning by over £7 billion, from £19.4 billion to £26.6 billion, between 2018 and 2022.
“This surge in lost pots is piling pressure on the government to find a solution. Part of the proposed answer, set out in the Mansion House reforms, would see an estimated 14 million ‘deferred’ pots worth less than £1,000 automatically transferred to a default consolidator. The DWP reckons the total assets of these small pots are worth around £4 billion – money it hopes to nudge towards larger schemes which might then invest more of members’ retirement savings in the UK’s post-pandemic recovery.
“The government is focusing on small pots only here because automatically transferring someone’s pension without getting their permission first comes with real risks. It is possible, for example, that someone might have their retirement pot moved to a scheme with higher charges or worse investment performance, or both. While it is logical to look at ways to increase scale and efficiency in the pension system, protecting the consumer must be the number one priority.
“By restricting automatic transfers to sub-£1,000 deferred pensions, the DWP is hoping to mitigate this risk, as the impact of charge differentials in pounds and pence terms should be relatively small.
“However, in reality this complex solution will likely take a long time to build and savers will still lose track of where their retirement pots end up. Instead, we need a solution that breaks through this apathy and reunites people with their pensions. The government should focus on launching pensions dashboards to enable people to locate all their pensions, including small pots, and empowering them to consolidate their retirement pots quickly and simply.”
Defined benefit surplus flexibility – the next Maxwell?
“The suggestion that employers could be handed more flexibility to access defined benefit surpluses has, perhaps inevitably, set a few hares running, with some warning the plans could lead to mass Robert Maxwell-style raids on people’s pensions.
“While the shadow of Maxwell and other historic pensions scandals still loom large, it is important to differentiate between a man who committed out-and-out pensions fraud and a call for evidence asking for views on whether the strict rules governing when a DB surplus can be accessed should be revisited.
“Clearly any proposals in this area will first-and-foremost need to ensure member benefits are not put at risk. DB schemes’ funding positions have improved substantially in the past year or so, in large part because of a dramatic rise in gilt yields. If employers were simply allowed to access this newfound surplus as though it were a windfall, that would present a clear danger to the finances of the scheme – particularly if gilt yields shifted in the wrong direction.
“This is why it is vital any extra flexibilities are tightly controlled and ensure the interests of pension scheme members remain protected.”