Auto-enrolment pension contributions need to exceed 8%, says minister

Guy Opperman wants the minimum sum that employees pay into their workplace pension to rise.

Guy Opperman, the pension minister, has confirmed he wants the minimum that employees pay into their workplace pension to increase beyond the current 8%, but said that the Pension Bill was not the place to trigger a rise.

At the launch of his Bill yesterday in Westminster, Opperman said that he also shied away from cutting the £10,000 auto-enrolment threshold, and changing tax relief rules that mean some lower paid workers miss out, until he saw the result of two contribution hikes.

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He said: “I took a view auto-enrolment wouldn’t be in this Bill. We’ve had a double jump in minimum contribution increases and won’t know the impact of that until December this year, and that will need to be analysed in great detail. Currently, employees pay in 5% and their employer 3%.

“I absolutely want to go further than 8%, but want to know how businesses will handle that. We will be revisiting auto-enrolment legislation in the next couple of years.”

The Pension Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech on Monday. In it was a fresh attempt from the government to crack down on fraudsters, first proposed in 2017, to let pension companies block a transfer where there is evidence that the destination is a scam.

Victims of pension scams lost on average £91,000 each, according to Action Fraud figures from 2017.

The Bill also confirmed that the creation of pension dashboards, online tools to allow savers to see all of their retirement pots in one place, will go ahead.

Opperman said: “It is quite clear pensions are several years behind the banks, but I do believe there is great scope. It’s going slower than I’d like but they’re dealing with a lot of data.”

He admitted the public were still hazy about what benefits pension dashboards, long debated in the financial sector, would provide for them as consumers.

“Until your pension is available in a digital format it is difficult to sell that idea. Our focus is to get all the consultations and everything done and to get the Bill through,” he said.

Yvonnne Braun, director of policy, long term savings and protection at the Association of British Insurers, called dashboards “the next stage of auto-enrolment”, and that they would help savers find lost pensions.

She said: “In trials, consumer engagement figures have gone through the roof.”

Jack Dromey, shadow pensions minister, said that the Bill was “welcome”, but expressed reservations about the creation of commercial pensions dashboards by the private sector, which are due to follow after the launch of a government-backed basic version.

Mr Dromey said: “This is a welcome Bill but it doesn’t solve all the problems in the pension landscape.

“The dashboard approach is not quite what I would have wanted to see, which was a public dashboard, but crucially we need to inform citizens as to where they are [with their pensions] so they can plan for their future.”

He roundly praised the Bill for giving life, if passed, to collective defined contribution pensions, deployed first for the Royal Mail scheme but open for other companies to adopt.

So-called CDC pensions are seen as a halfway house between the guaranteed income provided by defined benefit pensions, and the full exposure to the ups and downs of stockmarkets that savers in defined contribution schemes face.

“I absolutely agree that CDC is a groundbreaking concept that has immense implications for the pension landscape, where we have declining DB schemes and the move to DC both building up huge problems,” Dromey said.

Savers into CDC schemes will still have access to pension freedoms, it was confirmed in today’s meeting, unlike savers in DB schemes, who first have to transfer out in order to withdraw as they wish from their retirement pot.

The Pension Regulator also gains tougher powers in the Bill, which creates a new criminal offence for company directors who neglect defined benefit schemes, with fines of up to £1 million.

This comes in response to a series of high-profile corporate failures – most notably BHS and Carillion - that have resulted in members being hit with cuts to their pensions. 

It will be a criminal offence for bosses to engage in “wilful or grossly reckless behaviour” in relation to defined benefit schemes.

Measures included in the Pension Bill, which have a degree of cross-party support already, need to gain backing among MPs to pass through Parliament in order to become law.

However, this is uncertain as rumours abound that a general election is imminent, which would likely mean a reshuffle of MPs, amid struggles to secure a Brexit deal.

- This article was first written by our sister magazine Moneywise.

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