Quiet, Quiet, Bang – a review of 2017 in the pensions world

Alan Collins

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My initial thought was to sum up the last year by describing it as being one where there was quite a lot of talk but very little action.  A sort of “Have I Not Got News For You” if you like.

Having reviewed matters further, I reminded myself of a number of issues that caught the headlines for justifiable reasons. There is also promise of some big stories as we look into 2018 and beyond.

Firstly, the quiet, quiet bit.

The political landscape was always going to be dominated by Brexit and so it came to pass. Things were “spiced up” when Theresa May called a snap election which took place on 8 June – her powers of predicting the future certainly made actuaries feel better about themselves. At least we can be fairly certain 2018 will be an election-free zone (if not, I imagine Brenda from Bristol will have something to say about it).

All the Brexit-ing gave rise to a pretty much pension-free political agenda.

The recommendations from the Work and Pension Committee’s BHS pensions review were converted into a damp squib of a Green Paper. Even the low-hanging fruit of allowing schemes to more easily adopt Consumer Price Inflation was not progressed.  I can imagine the Paper has since been gathering dust on a far-away shelve in the deepest recesses of the never going to happen cupboard.

The much-heralded cold-calling ban has been put into cold storage. First announced in September 2016, it had been expected that firms would be prohibited from making unsolicited sales calls on pension matters in an attempt to combat the prevalence of scams.   However, the packed parliamentary agenda prompted the government to announce that legislation will be delayed until 2020.

There was hardly a mention of pensions in Chancellor Hammond’s November budget. This was generally welcomed by an industry that has grown tired of tedious tinkering.

At the more technical end of the spectrum, the long-running saga of VAT on pension scheme fees finally drew to a close. The end result was….just leave it the same as you have all been doing, but with some possible extended areas for reclaiming VAT on investment services.  The problem was that, despite the industry being on tenderhooks for three years and with only eight weeks to go until the deadline for implementation, the HMRC forgot to tell anyone of the decision.

The Work and Pensions Committee strode forward again recently to announce an inquiry into Collective Defined Contribution schemes. After the early death of “Defined Ambition”, the industry is fairly split on this – many, like myself are in the “never going to happen” brigade while others sit in the “give innovation a chance” camp.

Now for the bang…

The standout legal judgment for 2017 was Walker vs Innospec, where the previous limitation of spouse’s benefits for same-sex partners to periods of service on or after 5 December 2005 was ruled to be illegal. The law is now clear and schemes are taking action where necessary to redress matters.

My inbox has been flooded this year raising questions about my “GDPR Readiness”. For the few of you who haven’t heard, GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulations, which come into force on 25 May 2018 and is ramping up the level of scrutiny on the processing and treatment of personal data.  The implementation of GDPR is very much more stick than carrot, with fines for non-compliance and breaches being much higher than the current laws provide.  So, I have been getting ever more conversant in the language of legitimate interest, privacy notices, data mapping and subject access requests.  Much work has been done in this area and there will be plenty more of it in the coming months.

Despite the concerted and collaborative efforts of the industry’s “big three” (Willis Towers Watson, Aon and Mercer), the Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation into the market relating to investment consulting advice for pension schemes. The probe, which will determine “if there are any market features which prevent, restrict or distort competition”, is expected to report back in 2019.

The year is ending with a flurry of consolidation in the advisory market. Firstly, Broadstone purchased Mitchell Consulting and their sister company 2020 Trustees Limited.  Then, the recently floated Xafinity deepened and raided their “war-chest” by purchasing the administration, actuarial and investment businesses of Punter Southall.  In the pension equivalent of a “player plus cash” deal, HR Trustees headed off in other direction to merge with PSITL.

So, an interesting end to the year with plenty of room for speculation on might come about in 2018. I can hope for a better balance between talk and action, but I fear the continued domination of Brexit is still likely to lead to more quiet than bang for pensions.

Alan Collins

Post by Alan Collins

Head of Trustee Advisory Services at Spence he provides actuarial, funding and investment advice to trustees and sponsors of ongoing defined benefit schemes.

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