drawn down colourMy father used to regularly paraphrase Benjamin Franklin at me about nothing being certain except death and taxes when I was growing up. However, having spent the turn of the century advising members of small self-administered schemes how to navigate the 6 (some claimed there were in fact up to 13) different tax regimes for pensions which then applied so as to get the maximum possible benefit from them, I was a cheerleader of the tax simplification which the 2004 Finance Act brought in and which demolished all that.

Now it seems that actuaries are no longer going to be necessarily required for members of defined contribution (DC) schemes to get at their savings. In an age of increasing uncertainty about both death and taxes, I find myself cheering this too.

But why stop there? In their consultation document, the Government states that:

With the right consumer guidance, advice and support, people should be able to make their own choices about how to finance their retirement. Everybody’s circumstances are unique and it should not be for the State to dictate how someone should have to spend their savings.

It then adds:

Those who want the security of an annuity will still be able to purchase one. Equally, those who want greater control over their finances in the short term will be able to extract all their pension savings in a lump sum. And those who do not want to purchase an annuity or withdraw their money in one go, but would prefer to keep it invested and access it over time, will be able to purchase a drawdown product.

So the question has to be asked: why are these freedoms and choices not to be extended to defined benefit (DB) members as well?

The reasons the Government have advanced for the change are equally compelling when applied to DB:

  1. There is a lack of choice for people at retirement, which has become more of an urgent concern now that auto enrolment is boosting DC membership. This is even more the case for DB members who are already numerous (although getting less so daily), as their only choices are how much cash to take up to the 25% tax free limit and (up to a point) when to retire. The other freedom DB members have, of course, is to transfer out, although this freedom makes everybody feel very nervous and is possibly about (see below) to be snuffed out altogether.
  2. Current regulations deter innovation. This is, of course, why defined ambition as an idea has been so slow to get off the ground.
  3. Restrictions on cash commutation imply a lack of trust of members to be able to decide how they spend their savings.
  4. The concern that the annuity market has not maximised income for scheme members. This is mirrored by the high cost of de-risking via bulk annuities, which is the ultimate “flight path” for most DB pension schemes, and which many argue has resulted in a big drag on the growth of UK PLC.

All that would be required to extend these freedoms would be to allow DB members to commute as much of their benefits at retirement, whether for cash or income drawdown, as they wanted, with the rest taken as pension as now.

To be fair to the Government, they do acknowledge the logic of extending the freedoms set out in the consultation to DB members in section 6. But then something strange happens.

Firstly, for public sector schemes, as they are mostly unfunded, the Government says it is concerned about the negative cashflows of members transferring out. If 1% of public service workers did so, the joint Treasury/HMRC analysis is that the net cost would be £200 million. This, I think, provides a revealing peak into the world of state funding, where taking on the Royal Mail Pension Plan was seen as positive for Government finances and off balance sheet private finance initiative (PFI) contracts continue to be negotiated offering doubtful value to the state. It doesn’t matter how much things cost over all, it seems, as long as you are only paying out a bit at a time. The Government often behaves in this respect like the victim of a pay day loan shark. Depending on the commutation terms offered, extended commutation has the potential to solve the public sector pension crisis in a way that Hutton’s Pensions Commission didn’t quite manage to.

Not even considering the option of allowing greater commutation from the schemes themselves, the Government has already decided to ban such transfers from public sector to DC. There is to be no consultation on this.

For private DB schemes, the Government says the decision is “finely balanced”. They are worried about all of those currently captive DB pension investments being spent on Lamborghinis. This rather contradicts the earlier declaration of trust in pensioners to make appropriate decisions about their retirement – after all appropriate investment in support of regular income in retirement (which would presumably be recommended by the “guaranteed guidance” to be offered to DC members) should not differ markedly from the equivalent investments in DB schemes. Whether DB schemes invest on a longer-term basis than individuals is, as the Kay Review made clear, uncertain.

However the Government is very concerned about financial markets – they have section 6 of the consultation devoted to nothing else. It is almost as if individuals can be trusted to look after themselves, with a slightly bigger safety net and a bit of advice, but financial markets cannot.

Again, the Government is not consulting on extending commutation of benefits, but solely on the transfer issue. And apparently removing the current right of all members of defined benefit schemes, except in exceptional circumstances, as proposed with public service defined benefit schemes…must be the government’s starting point, unless the issues and risks around other options can be shown to be manageable.

Even if the Government does manage to stop people pouring out of the exits before April next year, this has to be bad policy. To provide more freedom and choice to one group of pensioners and at the same time to remove a longstanding freedom (and one available at the point members joined the schemes) from the other groups is clearly unfair. What is worse, with an election looming, it is likely to be unpopular.

By the way, one of the things that stands out for me in this whole consultation is the use of State with a big S and government with a small g. It is as if typography alone could portray the “State” as big and bad and “government” as on the side of the little guy. I have done the reverse here.

So, if you DB members want to stop the flickering light of Freedom and Choice dying before it even got going, I advise you not to go gentle but to rage, rage and respond in large numbers to questions 9 and 10 of the consultation in particular. You have until 11 June.

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