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John Greenwood: Who will be the Lester Piggott of auto-enrolment?

The Pensions Regulator has so far been reluctant to make an example of auto-enrolment non-compliance.

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Who will become the Lester Piggott of auto-enrolment? Staging date defaulters may not earn a three-year jail term or find themselves stripped of an OBE, as happened to the flat racing legend back in the 1980s when the Inland Revenue finally caught up with him.

But the first employer to be hit with a fine for failing to meet its auto-enrolment obligations will earn itself some spectacularly negative PR, as well as having to cough up what could be a hefty fine.

Negative as that PR will be for the organisation involved, it will be positive for the broader task of getting employers over the auto-enrolment finishing line in good time.

For years surveys have shown a majority of Britons would cheat the taxman if they thought they could get away with it. The reason they do not is fear of getting caught.

Convictions of high profile figures are the perfect way of getting the message home to the broader public that a regulator means business. The Lester Piggott conviction remains to this day a key component of HMRC’s psychological hold on the nation’s taxpayers, even though it is 26 years since he was found guilty of tax evasion.

Nothing motivates people to action more than fear. So I was surprised to see how reticent The Pensions Regulator has been in its attitude towards the inevitable milestone of the first employer being issued with a compliance notice for auto-enrolment regulation breaches.

Not only has the employer not been named but TPR did not even want to mention that a breach had taken place. It took a Freedom of Information Act enquiry to find out that a breach had happened at all, because my first enquiry of the regulator as to the number of current firms in breach met with a blanket ‘no comment’.

TPR has also opened 89 investigations into non-compliance by large employers.

As we all know, if the big, well-resourced employers are already getting things wrong, those further down the chain are far more likely to do so. And with a six to 12 month lead in needed ahead of an employer’s staging date, one would have though the sooner TPR managed to get an employer on the hook, into the newspapers and at the forefront of the minds of SME management, the better.

Some tell me they hear TPR is simply biding its time until the ‘right’ kind of defaulter comes along and that the first compliance notice was not of a type that fits the kind of message it wants to get across.

It may also suit TPR to get its big media splash on its powers to penalise nearer the turn of the New Year, when the need for definitive action will be more tangible for the great rump of SMEs staging in 2014.

But it is hard not to think that TPR is being overly generous with the carrots at the expense of the stick right now.

A year ago former TPR chief executive Bill Galvin suggested that there would be a considerable number of defaults, when he said: “I don’t know what the failure rate of corporate projects is on average but some of those 1 million projects will not hit their timelines.”

The regulator has published details of areas where employers have been getting it wrong and this information will have been absorbed by employers and consultants engaged with the process. But nothing catches the public’s imagination like a head on a spike.

I am not suggesting TPR should put an innocent head on a spike, but if it holds back in publicising actual breaches surely it is missing out on an easy way to motivate thousands more employers into action.

John Greenwood is editor of Corporate Adviser

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