TPO increases output despite pandemic challenges

The Pensions Ombudsman (TPO) closed 4,853 overall pension complaints in 2020/21 despite the impact of Covid-19, representing a 6 per cent year-on-year increase, according to its Annual Reports and Accounts 2020/21.

The ombudsman highlighted this as an "excellent achievement", confirming that 1,442 of these complaints were closed informally through its early resolution team, while 762 pension complaints were resolved through its adjudication teams.

A further 2,474 pension complaints were closed at the application and assessment stages, compared to 1,131 in 2019/20, with this "significant increase" attributed to the introduction of TPO's Casework Reorganisation Programme, which is expected to ensure complaints are resolved at the earliest possible stage.

Of the closures at the assessment stage, 45 per cent were due to the application being invalid or rejected, 27 per cent were due to insufficient information, 18 per cent were due to no consent being received from the complainant, and 10 per cent were due to the complaint being outside of TPO’s jurisdiction.

Formal determinations by an ombudsman, meanwhile, represented 6 percent of overall closed pension complaints (288), with 41 per cent of the pension complaints determined by an ombudsman upheld or partly upheld, compared to 29 per cent in 2019/20.

In total, TPO received 5,567 new pension complaints over the year, with retirement benefits, pension transfers, and misquotes/misinformation identified as the three most common topics of closed pension complaints.

Considering this, TPO also surpassed its own benchmarks for the year, closing investigations at a rate equivalent to 99.3 per cent of the number taken on in the year, compared to a target of 90 per cent, and dealing with enquiries at a rate of 99.3 per cent of new enquiries received, again compared to a target of 90 per cent.

However, despite reaching its target, TPO warned that the total number of new complaints remained below its output for the year, warning that this gap between supply and demand means customers are having to wait longer for their complaint to be dealt with.

Furthermore, whilst overall demand for the service remained “around the same” compared to 2029/20, the ombudsman warned that there had been “significant changes over the course of the year”.

“There was a fall in new pensions complaints during the early stages of the pandemic, but demand started to increase again towards the end of the year in line with its long-term trend," pension ombudsman, Anthony Arter, stated in the foreword of the report.

"We also expect the economic disruption caused by the pandemic to further add to demand for our service in the coming years. A notable trend is that complaints are becoming increasingly complex which has impacted on the time it takes to investigate them."

Whilst TPO aimed to have no more than 10 per cent of open investigations age more than 12 months, 29.1 per cent of open investigations have aged more than 12 months in 2020/21, despite an increase in the proportion of closures within three months.

The report explained: "The impact of Covid-19 and the increasing complexity of pension complaints has meant it is taking longer to resolve some pension complaints. Those that may otherwise have been resolved between 6-12 months are now taking over 12 months.

“In terms of active caseload, our aim for 2020/21 was to have less than 10 per cent of our active caseload older than 12 months. Improvements in closing cases earlier in our process have contributed to the increase in the proportion of our active pension complaints that are older.”

Commenting on the report more broadly, Arter added: “The past year has been incredibly busy as we have continued to make improvements to the service we offer our customers.

"Despite the ongoing trend of increasing demand and the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, we have continued to resolve complaints at an earlier stage with minimal disruption to our service for customers.

"During the year, Caroline Rookes was appointed as permanent Chair, Alex Robertson joined us as Chief Operating Officer and our Casework Reorganisation Programme was fully implemented.

"As a result, our governance has been strengthened and the customer journey has been simplified. Our transformational journey puts us in an excellent position to build on our achievements, prioritising further improvements to the customer journey and reducing customer waiting times.

"I am delighted that I will be able to continue this work due to my appointment as pensions ombudsman being extended for a further 12 months. As we celebrate our 30th anniversary of resolving pensions complaints, I am incredibly proud of our achievements over the past year.”

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