Teresa urges Ministers to improve legislation on auto-enrolment in Government pension scheme

During the third reading of the Pensions Bill yesterday, Teresa urged the Pensions Minister to take steps to improve plans for the automatic enrolment of low earners who don’t current have pensions into the Government pension scheme NEST (National Employment Savings Trust).

She also raised concerns about the lack of regulation and called on the Minister to consider, with the benefit of hindsight in regard to previous mis-selling problems, taking action to ensure that similar problems do not occur with auto-enrolment outside NEST. 

Teresa’s speech is below:

I strongly support the principle of auto-enrolment. As was pointed out by Harriett Baldwin, it means that from 2012 onwards, millions of people will save for a pension for the first time. We need a low-cost, trustworthy system in the United Kingdom if we are to begin to lift future generations out of pensioner poverty.


I fully support the establishment of NEST, as currently only 50% of employees contribute to a private pension, and for many of those on lower incomes the current system is poor. Research has shown that if a typical British and a typical Dutch person save exactly the same amount for their retirement, the Dutch person will end up with a 50% larger pension under the current scheme. I believe that that is because in the UK it is often not clear how high pension charges can be. For instance, a person who is sold a pension and charged at 1.5% per annum may not realise that over the lifetime of the pension, 38% of their possible income could be lost to fees.


In the past, pension companies were unwilling to provide the low-cost pensions of the type needed under auto-enrolment, as they felt that the ordinary low-paid workers had what the industry deemed “unattractive lives”—a somewhat derogatory term which simply meant that it was not easy to make money out of those policies. Indeed, it was because of the failure of the current structure to provide such pensions that it was necessary to establish NEST.


I welcome auto-enrolment, I welcome NEST and I welcome new clause 2, but three points cause me concern. My concern about auto-enrolment was prompted by some of the evidence given to the Work and Pensions Committee relating to a lack of regulation. I was troubled to hear that there would be no restrictions on how workplace pension savings are invested, and no record-keeping requirements for providers. The meeting between the Select Committee and the Pensions Regulator gave me very little reassurance. It appears that during the drafting of the Bill, many interested parties gained concessions. Employers, whether large, small or micro—along with the pensions industry—have been pleased to note that restrictions will be placed on NEST, but not necessarily on other alternative providers.


I believe that the restrictions placed on contributions to NEST, a vehicle for workers whose employers have no pension provision, may push some employers who are new to the pensions arena towards less scrupulous pension providers, I realise that NEST is aimed at lower earners, but some of the restrictions placed on it may nudge employers who are baffled by the choices facing them towards a pension provider that does not have such restrictions, but may well provide an unattractive pension scheme for the employee. It appears that the industry and employers have been around the negotiating table, but that the employees’ voice has not yet been heard.


If employers reject NEST because of the contribution limit, or other limits, they may place employees in schemes with unfairly high charges. I am deeply concerned about the apparent lack of a quality test for schemes that would be deemed to be a qualifying alternative to NEST. We know from past mis-selling scandals that too few people understand how charges, and pensions, work, and that—as in the case of the mis-selling of endowment policies—it can take many years for such practices to come to light. I ask the Minister to consider, with the benefit of hindsight in regard to previous mis-selling problems, what measures he intends to take to ensure that we do not store up similar troubles with auto-enrolment outside NEST.


My second point, which the Minister has touched on, relates to the ban on transfers to NEST, which resulted from lobbying from the pensions industry and which will benefit that industry at the expense of employees in the scheme. Under the current rules, people who are auto-enrolled in a scheme and go into NEST will not be able to move existing pots into the scheme. Such a ban cannot benefit the very employees and future pensioners whom we are trying to assist; it can only support the industry. I believe that a modern pension in a modern age should be portable, and that provisions for transfers in and out of NEST should be included in the Bill even if they cannot be implemented immediately. I welcomed some of the reassurances given by the Minister in his opening remarks.


My third reason for concern is the three-month waiting period. Although I understand the need to balance the administrative burden for businesses, it means that half a million fewer people will be automatically enrolled. As has been pointed out twice already today, nowadays many people have 11 different employers over their lifetimes. I would support a reduction to one month. Nevertheless, employees are currently able to opt in to the system from the first day of their employment, but they need to know that they have that right. I urge the Minister to amend the measures to require employers to ensure that employees are aware from when they start their employment that they can opt in from day one and receive employer pensions contributions.


The pensions cap combined with the three-month opt-out and the inability to transfer into NEST will prevent casual workers and part-time workers—mainly women—from building a decent pot, even though that is our aim. I ask the Minister to consider these concerns and in his closing remarks to give the House further assurances as to how they can be addressed.

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