A UK parliamentary committee will consider radical proposals to allow private sector pension schemes to cut costs by suspending inflation-linked increases for pensioners.
Members of the work and pensions select committee will next month look at whether struggling employer-backed “defined benefit” schemes should be permitted to break their pensions promises, committee chairman Frank Field told the Financial Times.
There is at present little scope for the UK’s 6,000 private sector pension schemes, which have about 11m members, to change the annual inflation-linked increases they have contracted to pay to pensioners.
But costs are soaring to record levels for some employers. Mr Field said MPs would look at ways to help struggling defined benefit schemes avoid ending up in the Pension Protection Fund, a result that could be more costly to pensioners than losing out on inflation increases.
“We should make clear our aim, with any policy changes, is the primary goal of safeguarding, in the best possible form, DB pension schemes,” Mr Field said ahead of the launch of the inquiry into defined benefit schemes.
“The aim is survival now, which gives you flexibility in the longer run,” he said.
Mr Field said his committee would look at what is required to “help create a climate of opinion so scheme trustees would naturally think about introducing flexibility on benefits”, primarily on inflation-matching increases.
The veteran Labour MP said that while it might be difficult for trustees to negotiate flexibility, they should insist they have the right to reverse any agreement on reducing inflation rises “if and when better times come”.
“That might be the price for survival now,” said Mr Field.
Mr Field’s comments came as Mercer, the actuarial consultants, warned that profits for the UK’s largest 350 listed companies could shrink by £2bn because of rising pension costs. The increase has been driven by falls in corporate bond yields, which are used to estimate the future liabilities reported in company accounts.
Affordability issues were also cited by BMW, the German carmaker, when it this week announced the closure of its defined benefit pension affecting 5,000 UK workers.
However, in a strongly worded statement issued this week, the UK Pensions Regulator warned against “knee jerk” reactions to the current funding challenges that employers with DB schemes are facing.
“Looking at the media, you could be forgiven for concluding that defined benefit pension scheme deficits are about to rain Armageddon on UK plc,” said Andrew Warwick-Thompson, TPR executive director for regulatory policy.
“The story going around is that the DB schemes are in ‘crisis’, the DB system is ‘unaffordable’ and that if the employers who sponsor them are to be saved from imminent insolvency, the only solution is to slash members’ pensions,” he said.
“I don’t believe that narrative bears much scrutiny.”
The regulator said its research continued to show that the “vast majority of employers with DB schemes should be able to repair their deficits and meet their long-term financial obligations to their schemes’ members”.