Pension Schemes Bill still 'a priority' despite Covid-19 delays - DWP

The Pension Schemes Bill remains "very much a priority" despite delays amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has said.

Speaking on a webinar hosted by the Association for Member Nominated Trustees (AMNT), DWP director of private pensions and arm's length bodies, Pete Searle, emphasised that the bill continued to be a priority for both the Pensions Minister, Guy Opperman, and the Minister for Lords, Baroness Williams.

According to Searle, the government identified the Pension Schemes Bill as an item that should be progressed further despite the current pandemic, due to the headway it had already made in the parliamentary process.

He explained, however, that the House of Lords had yet to find a way to get virtual voting to work effectively, causing further delays to its progression.

Searle added that whilst there was no concrete date for the bill to progress further, both Opperman and the DWP remain “very much committed” to passing the bill “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

He added: “We expect to go back to the bill in a few weeks’ time, and we expect it to take longer to get through than it otherwise would have done. But as yet we’ve got no date.”

The DWP also emphasised that as soon as a voting system was in place, the bill would go “full steam ahead”.

Furthermore, DWP deputy director, defined benefit private pensions policy, Jo Gibson, stressed that the department had utilised this interim time to ensure that the bill maintained momentum and remained practical.

For instance, she explained that the DWP had worked closely with housing authorities and ministers to keep traction, also working with a number of peers to maintain their interest in the bill.

She said that the department had also been looking to at the contents of the bill "in light of the Covid-19 situation" to explore whether anything needs changing, stressing that this "work is all going on" despite the current crisis.

Searle added that one early thought around the impact on pensions in the longer term would be that the visibility of the extra risk that defined contribution (DC) members face could potentially change the way people view the system, and even lead to greater interest for collective DC (CDC).

“We’re not there yet,” he clarified, “but it could be that sort of change of context that leads to a change of direction in future.”

Gibson echoed this, adding that “what is in the bill at the moment, is what is planned”.

She also highlighted however, that "most of the bill is implemented via regulations", and that even when the primary regulation, the bill, is passed, the "whole round" will have to be repeated for the secondary regulation.

"So a lot of what is in the bill won't come in immediately anyway, all of this just pushed it to the right a little bit," she explained.

DWP deputy director for pensions dashboard policy, projects and guidance, David Bateman, added that work on the dashboard had also continued despite the delays.

Bateman pointed to the work of the Pensions Dashboard Programme, who published its first update in April, and is due to publish its next in October.

“In-between those two points,” he explained, “I know that they are very keen to engage, and move forward with issues such as the data piece, so there will be action around the issues of the bill, if not the actual legislation that will flow from the bill itself.”

Looking further ahead, at how future pension issues will be considered and taken forward, Searle floated the idea of a pensions commission “as one possible avenue".

He confirmed that Opperman had previously also expressed interest in a commission, stating that there “are a whole of issues it could look at”, including potentially climate-related issues or the long-term impact of Covid-19.

Searle added that whilst there are “no concrete plans”, he expects further conversations with Opperman, and other ministers, in the future.

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