What’s in a name?

Michelle Cracknell started work as CEO at The Pensions Advisory Service (TPAS) with a mission in mind: to increase awareness of the services it provides, both to the public and within the industry.

“When I took the job, my observation when I told people that I was joining The Pensions Advisory Service was that a lot of them would recall OPAS but had not realised that it had become TPAS. Our name awareness had declined,” she recalls.

Initially founded in May 1983 as the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service (OPAS), TPAS is an independent voluntary organisation, providing information and guidance to members of the public about state, occupational and personal pension matters. It also helps people regarding complaints about their private or occupational pension arrangements. OPAS’ name changed to The Pensions Advisory Service in December 2004.

Cracknell took over as CEO for a three-year fixed term from Marta Phillips in October last year, and since then has been talking to key industry figures and trade bodies, as “my view is that the industry probably knows a little bit about what we do but not everything”. Her aim is for TPAS and the industry to work closely together.

“This can be either to validate the work they are doing, support the communications they have to help members understand their pension, or where things go wrong to get us involved sooner rather than later in the internal dispute resolution process,” she explains.

“When someone reads a piece of pensions communication, their first thought is ‘what does this mean for me’? We can be another port of call for members to be directed to as an independent body to talk through their individual circumstances, without it falling into the remit of regulated financial advice.”

TPAS currently has 42 members of staff and 359 volunteers, a number which Cracknell is keen to see increase. “Our helplines are staffed by volunteers with at least 10 years’ experience. Our volunteers enjoy giving something back, as unlike sitting behind your desk every day dealing with pension matters, volunteering on the helplines really helps you focus on the end result, the member,” she says.

A webchat offering was launched in July 2013 “to deliver our service in ways that the public want”, and has grown in popularity to the extent that TPAS is currently trialling opening it for longer working hours.

TPAS currently manages 75,000 queries a year and with an extra nine million people expected to be saving for retirement by 2016, thanks to auto-enrolment, Cracknell fully expects demand to increase.

While TPAS’ mandate is to help members of the public with their pensions enquiries, it has been receiving queries from employers regarding auto-enrolment eligibility criteria. “The lines are blurred when it comes to small and micro employers,” Cracknell says. “Their personal relationship with pensions is different from larger employers. We are happy to help and if it goes beyond our remit we can always signpost people to the right department to talk to.”

According to Cracknell, the advisory service is starting to deal with its first auto-enrolment dispute cases. These are complaints where a person has been automatically enrolled into a pension scheme and has chosen to opt out but has not done so within the correct timescales, meaning the contributions are kept within the scheme. The member then speaks to TPAS to ascertain whether the scheme was too slow in dealing with its request.

TPAS is also finding an increasing number of women phone the helpline with queries regarding auto-enrolment. “We are taking phone calls where women are phoning up to say that they have been put into a pension and they do not want to be in a pension scheme as their husband looks after their pension. We want to tell them the pitfalls and dangers of setting up their private arrangements in that way,” Cracknell says.

Therefore in February TPAS will be releasing a booklet about what happens to pensions when a relationship ends. This is due to the number of calls it receives from women who are getting divorced and do not understand the pension implications, or where the husband has died and they do not know what to do with the pension.

The partner dying can also result in the problem of overpayments. According to Cracknell, TPAS receives a number of distressed phone calls where a partner has died and the subsequent overpayment results in the individual receiving a letter reclaiming the money.

Here TPAS can act as a go-between. It can talk through the member’s financial circumstances and then speak to the pension scheme about what it believes is a fair repayment schedule for both parties.

TPAS is also increasingly being used as an intermediary between the pension provider and scheme member in matters of suspected pension liberation fraud.

“With pension liberation fraud, the industry is attacked from both sides”, Cracknell explains. “On the one side it is trying to prevent fraud occurring, but on the other side they have members getting cross with them for slowing down the transaction process.”

TPAS has spoken to members who have been frustrated that their scheme has been slow with providing a transfer value. It can explain the reasons why there may be concerns about fraud, and as it is not tied to the pension scheme, can alleviate members’ fears that the scheme is only going slowly because it wants to keep hold of the money.

Along with queries and disputes, TPAS handles 5,000 complaints a year. These are divided into two types, first party complaints and third party complaints. A first party complaint is where somebody complains about their pension scheme or provider.

“This could be where something has been adequately efficient or explained well, but the member has not ‘lost out’,” Cracknell explains, usually requiring TPAS to provide an explanation as opposed to speaking with the pension scheme. TPAS receives approximately 3,000 first party complaints annually. The remaining 2,000 third party complaints range from entitlements, to overpayments and ill health request processes.

“We get more complaints regarding DC than we do for DB,” Cracknell says. “With DB, the majority of complaints are about timing. With DC as the markets drop we get a peak in complaints.”

TPAS is keen to share its wealth of information with the industry and to increase awareness of pension issues and its services with the public. To that end it published its 2013-2014 Women and Pensions Survey in January and is planning to publish more of its data throughout the year. “We believe the industry could benefit from our information about what the public thinks about pensions,” Cracknell says.

Talking to the industry about how it can improve the customer journey is her “crusade”, she adds. “Often when people phone us up they say that we are the fourth, fifth, sixth person they have spoken to. As an industry I would like us to get better at signposting, ensuring people understand who they need to speak to.

“We take too many calls at the moment where the person has called an insurer about their pension and during the course of the conversation the insurer says that they cannot help with their query. So my quest is to improve the customer journey and for them to never hear ‘I can’t answer that’, but to always signpost them onto us or to another organisation that can help them.”

And Cracknell’s ultimate goal? “That when I walk down the street and canvas people they turn around and say that they have heard of TPAS, that they know we give the public advice about pensions.”

Laura Blows is editor of Pensions Age

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