Rasputin and 3rd Sector Pension Provision – an analogy too far?

David Davison

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A wave of optimism broke out as I read a recent interview with Sarah Smart, the Chair of the Pensions Trust (“the Trust”) in which she quite sensibly highlighted the risks faced by charities from their final salary pension schemes.

However the optimism was short lived, as whilst finding it difficult to disagree with the sentiments expressed they struck me as being at odds with another recent article where Mrs Smart appeared to continue to promote the use of Defined Benefit schemes with the statement “Despite numerous and well-publicised assassination attempts on DB Schemes over the past few years, I remain hopeful that they may yet prove to be Rasputin-like in their resilience and stubbornly refuse to lay down and die.” In the same article she had confirmed that she had effectively turned a DC Governance seminar into a sales pitch for DB. Am I the only one who sees some inconsistency here?

Also an anology with Rasputin strikes me as slightly inappropriate and I’m sure on reflection that Mrs Smart will feel she could have chosen a better one. It is entirely her prerogative to associate her cause with an incontinent alcoholic ‘mad’ monk, but she also appears to have missed the fact that Rasputin did eventually “lie down and die” at the hands of an assassin, and that the consensus was that Russian society was a great deal better off without him.

And what are we to make of yet another article from Mrs Smart on the schemexpert website where she makes the point that “the public sector is kidding itself if it thinks it can afford to keep building up defined benefit liabilities.”? But employers in the 3rd sector can?

In the Third Sector article Mrs Smart also suggests that the Pension Trust have been “trying to improve the sectors’ awareness of these risks” as “too often, warnings fall on deaf ears until there is a problem.” Now these statements may well surprise many of the participants in her organisation’s schemes and indeed be comments that may greatly irritate and upset senior individuals within them.

I’m not aware, nor indeed are numerous of my clients that I have asked, of the Trust providing participants in their schemes with any risk warnings about how bad these schemes might be for their organisations future health and well-being. Mrs Smart’s comments seem to suggest that the ‘white knight’ that is the Trust has for a long time been supplying such information freely and frequently to its participants and, despite its best efforts, it has been consistently, wantonly and irresponsibly ignored by those participants.

However it is in my experience, and that of my clients who are participants, that the Pensions Trust as an organisation historically promoted and continues to promote the use of DB schemes to employers who, it is becoming increasingly apparent, can ill afford to participate.  Not only that, but in my experience, cumbersome decision making processes within the Trust make it time consuming and frequently expensive for participants to ask important questions about schemes. The Trust remains incapable of providing accounting disclosures for participants that would allow them, their auditors and advisers to quantify the level of risk exposure. This latter point was very forcefully posed to the Trust at the ICAS meeting which was also mentioned in the article – a meeting which highlighted the deficiencies of the Trusts approach. Crucially also its schemes also do not offer participants the necessary flexibility to allow them to deal effectively with legacy deficits already built up.

Interestingly the article also highlights the vulnerability of trustees of unincorporated organisations. Has this not been something which has been known for some time? Did the Trust adopt a more risk based approach with these types of organisations and highlight this risk prior to allowing them to join? Did the Trust contact such organisations participating in its schemes? Once these unfortunate charities are trapped within a scheme what support does the Trust provide to help them deal with the problem?

Hopefully Mrs Smart and the Trust can arrive at a clear and consistent message about the use of DB pension schemes in the charitable sector. As my colleague Neil Copeland has pointed out in a different context, a U turn is not necessarily a wrong turn.

Is it too much to hope that the Trust and its participating employers could get to a position where both are facing in the same direction and might that direction be away from defined benefit pension provision?

David Davison

Post by David Davison

Specialist consultant on pensions strategy for corporate, public sector and not for profit employers