In our most recent blog we examined what the post-election pensions picture might look like following the Conservative Party’s outright majority victory in the General Election.
Now, following the recent Cabinet appointments announced by the new Government, Ros Altmann, a former adviser to the Number 10 Policy Unit and well known pensions campaigner, has been confirmed as Pensions Minister.[i] In an appointment that has largely been welcomed by the pensions industry, Altmann replaces the outgoing Liberal Democrat MP, Steve Webb, who spent five years in the role.
Now, with crystal ball in hand, we examine a few key areas that Altmann may look to target in the coming months.
Despite the success of auto enrolment in dramatically increasing the number of people in company pension schemes (a recent study has estimated that 5,870,000 workers have been now been automatically enrolled), it is widely acknowledged that the level of mandatory contributions paid into these schemes is not enough (the combined employer/employee minimum contributions payable currently stand at 3%, rising by October 2018 to 8% of qualifying earnings).
Although Altmann (like Steve Webb before her) has been reluctant to commit to a particular figure she would like these minimum contributions increased to, she did recently comment (via her farewell blog on her website) that:
Auto-enrolment has encouraged more than five million people into a workplace pension – but we still have a further five million to go…Opt-out rates have been encouragingly low, but so are the minimum contributions and of course we will need contributions to increase over time.
We therefore expect this to be one of the issues on her “to-do” list over the next five years.
Cap on charges
A cap on workplace pension charges was introduced earlier this year, meaning no saver can be charged more than 0.75% a year when their money is invested in the default fund of a money purchase scheme (see our blog entitled “The DC charge cap – are you compliant?” for more detail).
Altmann has previously advocated the need for such a cap to also apply to exit fees for those pension scheme members transferring their pension pot to another scheme and to other retirement choices, such as income drawdown.
Whilst there remains some resistance to such a cap being extended more widely, we would not be surprised if this was one of Altmann’s priorities in the short term, given the greater pension freedoms now available to members which will mean that pension pots will be used in a variety of different ways.
Annuities for sale
Earlier this year, Steve Webb announced plans to allow pensioners to sell their annual lifetime incomes – known as “annuities” – to the highest bidder. The aim was to allow those pensioners who missed out on the new pension freedoms the option to sell their annuity and access this cash in the same way as those over 55 are now permitted to do.
Altmann, who has been an outspoken critic of annuities, backed the announcement as a ‘popular and sensible decision’ and whilst this plan is still in consultation, Altmann has said she hopes ‘this will very much become a reality’ next year.
As such, we suspect that this will be one change that Altmann will be very keen to push through, although we question whether, in reality, there will be a market for the purchase of these annuities.
Given Altmann’s history in the industry, we expect consumer protection to be at the heart of pensions developments under this Government. And whilst it is a little too early for new initiatives, it would appear as though the new Pensions Minister is keen to build on a number of her predecessor’s policies.
[i] Although not an MP, she is to shortly be nominated for peerage meaning she can become a Cabinet minister.