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Surveys measure seismic waves in pension world

The Association of Consulting Actuaries’ 2005 Pension Trends Survey and the Government Actuary’s Department’s 2004 Occupational Pension Schemes Survey highlight significant changes in UK pension provision and the attitudes of employers in setting up and running schemes for employees.

These surveys give an interesting insight into the environment in which employers have to operate.

The GAD survey shows that there were around 16,600 private sector occupational schemes with 12 or more members and around 80,000 schemes with fewer than12 members last year. Most schemes with 10,000 or more members were run on a defined-benefit basis but, overall, a significant proportion of private-sector DB schemes were closed or frozen.

The most common change made to DB schemes was to close the scheme and offer alternative pension arrangements to new entrants while the most common change made to defined-contribution schemes was to increase the range of investment choices.

Many employers are concerned about the burden of legislative changes as well as the funding of their schemes. Average combined employer and employee contributions to DB schemes have increased over the last three years from 15.8 to 22 per cent of earnings. Unfortunately, increases in contributions are not being used to improve scheme benefits but to reduce deficits. The recovery in equity markets has helped to reduce deficits but sustained improvements will be needed before they are eliminated.

Combined contributions under DC schemes have increased from 8.5 per cent in 2002 to 10 per cent in 2005, which appears to be the result of big employers switching from DB to DC schemes.

The ACA found that the vast majority of DB schemes remain contracted out of the state scheme but only 17 per cent of DC schemes are contracted out. The level of contracted-out rebates can have a big impact on costs, especially for DB schemes.

The GAD is expected to start its consultation soon on the rebates to apply from 2007 and pension schemes will be pressing for higher rebates in future as the financial argument for contracting-out has become increasingly unconvincing. The position is even more acute where DB schemes are closed to new entrants and the average age of contracted-out members is rising.

Individuals who have contracted out though a personal pension are able to change their decision by completing a simple form but, where schemes have contracted out, especially DB schemes, it is much more difficult as the design of the scheme needs to be changed from scratch. An increase in rebates from 2007 would boost the confidence of employers and providers and might even help stem the tide of swit- ches from DB to DC.

Although the tax changes in April 2006 will simplify pensions considerably in the long run, there will be increased costs on employers in the next few years. Employers need to make decisions about greater flexibility over tax-free cash, the new minimum retirement ages, changing employment policy to permit partial retirement while continuing to work, different types of death benefits and options over methods of taking income from the scheme on retirement.

Scheme trustees will then have get to grips with the administrative changes that they will have to make to scheme documents, including communicating the changes to members. All schemes will be affected, including those that are closed to new entrants or frozen, and not just those with members affected by the lifetime allowance.

Future surveys are unlikely to record a period of calm and certainty for employers. Frustration with regulations and increased costs is inevitable.

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