There are two ways to react to the disappointment of not having a pensions bill in the Kings Speech.
The first is to let rip at the DWP and a process that has had the pensions industry engaging in a series of proposals, only to find the resource put the Government’s way has come to nothing.
Let’s not forget that the Mansion House reforms are about getting people better pensions. The Chancellor lf has told the public the Mansion House reform package could channel £50bn of new pension investment in the UK by 2030 and increase pensioner incomes by more than £1,000 a year for the average earner.
The second is to ask what can be done to further the undeniably good ideas behind the Mansion House reforms, within existing legislation.
Neither response is entirely satisfactory. There should be just anger at Government for embarking on a process that it was not prepared to see through. The Government chose 21 bills ahead of a pension bill including one to regulate pedicabs on City streets. That is a kick in the teeth to all concerned, including those who wrote the consultations, read the responses and issued the response documents.
The trust put in Government by those who engaged with it on the consultations that underwrote the Mansion House reforms was based on promises from the Treasury, DWP, DULUC and the City of London Mayor. Abusing that trust by delivering nothing back is a breach of trust. Laura Trott , as Pensions Minister, needs to restore that trust by delivering a credible “plan B”. There may be a Plan B in the Finance Bill that comes out of the Chancellor’s autumn statement but it will not address many of the issues the consultations addressed.
But we must also understand the political process and bow to it. The time for the sweeping reforms that the Mansion House promised was earlier in the political cycle. The impact of quantitative easing which dominated the economic landscape for most of the past 13 years was to suppress the progressive reforms around superfunds, CDC, VFM and consolidation (schemes and pots). Ironically it took the “blow-up” of LDI to crack the consensus around de-risking which had led us to the DB funding code and to the low-bar ambition of self-sufficiency or buy-out. Mansion House came too late.
“Pensions” has been defused as a political issue by the rise in gilt yields which has kept it out of the headlines for a year. The Government clearly did not want to introduce private pensions as a plank of party policy leading to an election. The public is more interested in the state pension , the state of the NHS (as it impacts long-term care), and the cost of an ageing nation to its youth.
This reading could suggest that rather than leading us up the garden path, Laura Trott and Mel Stride were themselves disappointed. I think this is a rather more credible reading of the situation. The Government has not got the luxury of time or of popular support. The Kings Speech smacked of shameless popularism, but what else could we expect? The King read his words with the enthusiasm of a man reading a resignation speech.
There is a plan B for many of the proposed reforms. The proposal for a £10k general levy on all occupational schemes with less than 10,000 members will force most impacted to at the very least , question their VFM. Most will conclude the game is up. The super levy is a blunt tool, the VFM Framework a better one, but blunt tools may be all we can afford.
CDC will limp on under the DWP legislation and TPR’s CDC code. The consumer issue is not with CDC but with the lack of opportunity to turn pot to pension , other than with an annuity. The Government should press on and support initiatives that enable pensions to be bought on a guaranteed or non-guaranteed basis using fund and existing pension schemes. I am not convinced that a decumulation only CDC scheme will ever exist, I am quite sure that equivalents will emerge from the shambles of investment pathways.
Superfunds will happen, Clara has its first deal, announced on the eve of the Kings Speech. There is sign that the Pensions Regulator has listened to the criticism of its inadequate guidance issued in the summer and will enable other superfunds to reapply. They will have to operate under interim legislation but they have known that since 2018, plus ca change, the entrepreneurs behind DB consolidation are a resilient bunch.
I am less optimistic for master trusts struggling with small pots. The Government’s lengthy consultation had it seemed resulted in a confirmed policy which needed only the nod of parliament. This least contentious of reforms may find a way forward by some legislative backdoor but I don’t see it yet. In the meantime the workplace pensions most impacted are back to where they started, needing to sort the problem out between themselves. Maybe the pressure of a potential 8m small pots by the end of the decade will force them to the table. Much can be done using existing legislation but it will take laggards such as People’s and Nest to get their act together and co-operate.
Finally, the big prize, a wholesale shift in asset allocation towards unlisted securities and British enterprise may have sufficient momentum behind it, to drive the changes that are needed for occupational pension schemes to reinvest. We should expect something from the Treasury by way of an incentive to do so. If the Autumn Statement is silent on the Mansion House Reforms, then it will not just be the DWP but the Treasury that will be embarrassed. Plan B has enough in it to drive change and while we may feel peeved to have wasted so much of the year helping Government with the small things, we may be thankful yet about the big ones.
Blame or Sympathise?
Laura Trott has been very low profile throughout. I suspect she knew she was chancing it and she has not committed too much of her personal or political capital to the projects she put her pen to.
She has been smart , but not that smart and we should call her to account. She needs to lay out what the interim position will be on CDC, superfunds, VFM , pot consolidation and – by extension – the pensions dashboard.
We require of ministers, a degree of leadership and now is the time for the Pensions Minister to explain her Plan B. We may be able to forgive her for not getting us a pension bill, but we cannot forgive her, for not getting us better pensions.