Ben Cocks: DWP’s deafening silence on pot-follows-member

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I like the pot-follows-member policy. Obviously it will help avoid a proliferation of small and easily forgotten pension policies but, more importantly, it will show both customers and the industry that pensions can be quickly and easily transferred between providers.

Without this free flow of assets it’s hard to see how pension freedoms can be effective, or more generally competition, can work at all.

Not everyone is happy with this though. Of all the changes that former pensions minister Steve Webb introduced it was PFM that upset the industry’s “vested interests” most.

Speaking to Money Marketing in April last year, Webb said: “I still remember a meeting with leading industry figures where you could just see them round the room thinking ‘hang on – we are going to have a net outflow of funds here, I don’t like the look of this’ or ‘I am quite enjoying all this money just sitting quietly on my books – don’t prod it whatever you do’.”

I really like the way the DWP has gone about implementing the policy. It was a refreshingly open and collaborative initiative by any standard, but by government standards it was astonishing. A series of no-holds-barred discussions with a wide cross-section of industry representatives on all aspects of policy implementation ensured the DWP came up with the right answer and built substantial support for the policy along the way.

The resulting operational, technical and legal framework provides both the foundation for PFM and the solution to the wider pension transfer problems that are currently the subject of a Treasury consultation.

In particular, the commitment to open standards removes the need for cumbersome centralised government systems and avoids any one part of the industry gaining a monopoly on transfers.

And the commitment to a ‘white list’ of providers with accompanying legal obligations will resolve much of the transfer paralysis caused by pension scams. I trust the Treasury is paying attention.

But since February we’ve heard nothing from the DWP. Theoretically the plan is still for PFM to start live operation in October 2016 with 20 of the largest pension administrators – but the silence from the DWP is becoming deafening.

The “vested interests” have seen this as an opportunity to start questioning the sanity of PFM once again, with various articles appearing in the press. While the industry has continued working hard towards the implementation of PFM, and has now even published detailed draft technical definitions, the continuing DWP radio silence is beginning to eat away at the goodwill and enthusiasm created over the course of last year.

This leaves pension administrators between a rock and a hard place. If they are to be ready for the October 2016 deadline then they will need to start their implementation projects in anger within the next month or so.

So either they risk spending money on a PFM implementation that might never be used or they risk missing the DWP’s very clearly stated deadline.

So here’s our plea to the DWP – or perhaps more correctly to the new pension minister, Ros Altmann. This is the right policy, with the right approach at exactly the right time. The industry needs this and we can deliver it.

Come on, Ros, give us the word and we shall make it so.

Ben Cocks is director at Altus