Pension schemes

Part of Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 9 Ionawr 2018.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 2:00, 9 Ionawr 2018

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger. The Minister referred to scams. To some extent, I am glad that he used the word “scam”, because I suspect that if I had used it, people would have said it was Labour again attacking companies, pension companies and investments. It is not the word I would have used, but I understand the point he makes, and it goes to the heart of what we want to discuss today, which is transparency.

Amendment 41 seeks to improve the transparency of master trust pension schemes, to ensure that they are at the forefront of changes taking place across the defined contribution sector. There is an argument to say that one cannot be transparent enough in these sorts of situations. We have had all sorts of institutional dodginess—let us put it no stronger than that—in the past, and whether through endowment schemes, personal protection plans, or the stuff now going on with leaseholds and property, people’s faith in some institutions is, I suspect, being challenged a little. That is why we want to push the envelope, so to speak.

The changes proposed in the amendment are twofold: first, it would ensure that a clear and coherent investment strategy is presented to HMRC before registration, which would go beyond the Government’s proposal; secondly, a clear annual report on the costs and charges being applied to saver pots must be presented to the trustees and, we hope, be made available to savers. We think that that will modernise the approach towards the fiduciary management of savers’ assets, updating the statement of investment principles approach that is currently required by master trusts. It will also bring master trusts in line with wider Government policy on reporting costs and charges—we are finally beginning to see some progress on that, following many years of campaigning by various bodies and organisations, as well as by many Members on both sides of the Committee and by other organisations.

Subsection (2) of amendment 41 requires a master trust to include an investment strategy in its application for registration to HMRC. Until now, every occupational pension scheme has been legally required to prepare and maintain a statement of investment principles, and that is expected to cover the trustees’ plans for securing compliance with their statutory duties, and their policies on investments, risks, returns and how they will exercise their voting rights. The amendment would ensure that such practice is embedded in the master trust sector, and enhanced to encourage trustees to strategically consider—a split infinitive there—factors that they believe will influence the financial performance of their investments, as well as, importantly, looking more closely at socially responsible investment.

We know that companies with strong environmental and social governance credentials have better long-term performance—that goes without saying. A company that is committed to environmental sustainability, and which cares about its staff and is well run and managed should, in the long term, always profit over a company that does none of those things. We have only to look at the Sports Direct share price over the past two years, or at Volkswagen following the 2015 emissions scandal. People react to what they perceive as non-environmentally friendly, or non-socially friendly approaches to their staff or product. Of course, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has an interest in ensuring that the schemes that register with it for taxation purposes have a clear and transparent strategy for guaranteeing pension scheme members a secure retirement. That is a big responsibility for HMRC, and we should support it with the appropriate resources.

As long as pension funds can show that any investment or policy decision was made on a fiduciary basis and consulted on with members, they can avoid the charge that they have not considered their members’ best interests. The amendment will help HMRC to feel confident that the scheme being registered is legitimate, and it will also have secondary effects. Public opinion tends to position the average citizen as a helpless bystander in this drama, when in fact public money underpins the entire system. Anyone with a pension is indirectly an owner of Britain’s biggest companies, and the amendment envisions a world in which people feel that their savings give them a positive stake in the economy, and a voice in how the companies that they invest in are run.

The rise of private pension savings has led to a democratisation of company ownership, but when it comes to control of ownership rights the reverse is true. Power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of opaque and unaccountable financial institutions. As the Kay report showed, these institutions often face systematic pressures to act in ways that may not serve savers’ best interests. Direct accountability to savers is therefore a vital component of a healthy economic and financial system. As millions of savers have entered the capital markets through pension auto-enrolment, now is the right time, in our opinion, to build a more accountable system. We are talking 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ahead—let us start now.

In June 2011 the Government invited Professor John Kay to conduct a review into equity markets and long-term decision making. As I recall, the final report was published in July 2012. His review considered how well equity markets were achieving their core purposes: to enhance the performance of UK companies and to enable savers to benefit from the activity of these businesses through returns to direct and indirect ownership of shares in UK companies. The review identified the fact that short-termism is a problem in UK equity markets. Professor Kay also recommended that company directors, asset managers and asset holders adopt measures to promote both stewardship and long-term decision making. In particular, he stressed:

“Asset managers can contribute more to the performance of British business (and in consequence to overall returns to their savers) through greater involvement with the companies in which they invest.”

He concluded that adopting such responsible investment practices would prove beneficial for investors and markets alike. When it is put in those simple terms, who could argue? It seems to me axiomatic.

In practice, responsible investment could involve making investment decisions based on the long term, as well as playing an active role in corporate governance by exercising shareholder voting rights. Master trusts will want to consider the Kay review’s findings when developing their proposals, including what governance procedures and mechanisms would be needed to facilitate long-term responsible investing and stewardship through the funds they choose for members to save in.

The UK stewardship code, published by the Financial Reporting Council, has seven principles and also provides master trusts with guidance on good practice when monitoring and engaging with the companies in which they invest. Amendment 41 seeks to make sure that the trustees are cognisant of these issues, and we hope that where possible they will engage with their scheme members during the decision-making process.

In recent decades, efforts to improve the way in which companies are run have focused heavily on making directors more accountable to their shareholders—for example, the recent introduction of a binding say on pay—but this job is only half done. Ownership rights are exercised largely by institutions that are themselves intermediaries and accountability to the underlying savers who provide the capital remains weak. The logical next step must be for institutional investors to extend the same accountability that they expect from companies to the savers whom they represent. Indeed, such accountability is essential to the success of recent measures to encourage more engaged and responsible shareowners.

The UK stewardship code was introduced in the aftermath of the financial crisis to address concerns that shareholders were behaving as—I think this was the quote—“absentee landlords”. Rather than being enforced by regulators, it is a voluntary code that relies on scrutiny from below to promote compliance, mirroring the corporate governance code for companies. Yet while shareholders are given extensive rights to hold companies to account for their governance practices, savers are not equipped to play the same role in relation to institutional investors. The investment regulations currently require master trusts to set up, within the statement of investment principles, the extent to which social, environmental or corporate governance considerations are taken into account in the selection, retention and realisation of investments, and these policies should be developed in the context of consultation with the scheme members and should enhance the engagement with them over these crucial issues.