Assault course for the pension army

Altruism and common sense used to be qualification enough for lay trustees of company funds. But times have changed

In most walks of life, volunteers are valued for the contribution they make to society. Except, it seems, when it comes to those who help run the hundreds of billions of pounds in company pension schemes.

"Today, being a lay pension trustee volunteer can be a mug's game," says Tom McPhail, head of pensions research at independent financial adviser Hargreaves Lansdown. "They generally have no idea what they are signing up to. [In the past] it was simpler, but pensions legislation has become more and more complex."

The pitfalls are huge, he says: trustees can play a part in bad investment decisions that weaken the value of pension funds and could be held financially liable in the event of collapse of the scheme.

Mr McPhail describes the concept of trustees as "gorgeously old-fashioned and civic-minded", but adds: "There are so many new ways to get it wrong today."

In a recent radio interview, Sir Bryan Nicholson, the departing chairman of the Financial Reporting Council - the independent regulator for corporate governance - struck a similar, if less colourful, note of caution for volunteers.

There were risks "inherent in ... complicated matters being dealt with by people on a part-time basis", he stressed, adding that higher standards were needed due to the changing nature of these risks.

Sir Bryan wants to see more training for trustees and greater openness within the trustee community.

For the uninitiated, lay trustees act as supervisors for company pension funds and can hire actuaries, consultants and accountants to help them take investment decisions. They liaise with professional trustees - outsiders paid to help govern a company scheme - and make up a board in charge of the plan.

Lay volunteers are usually protected with insurance against liability for a collapsed scheme. This is a crucial point to check before becoming a trustee.

However, the warnings from Mr McPhail and Sir Bryan reflect new problems being experienced by the 176,000 or so men and women who give up their time for no pay, but in return for days off work, to help steer pension funds.

From October this year, when parts of the 2004 Pensions Act come into force, trustees will have to tighten up their act.

"All pension trustees now have to be competent in pensions law and trust law, and understand investment [principles]," says Robin Ellison, chairman of the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) and author of The Pension Trustees Handbook.

Anyone taking on the role will also have to be au fait with the intricacies of company reports. These requirements could create obstacles for the many trustees who have so far relied on a good dose of general knowledge, some specialist skills and a dollop of common sense.

Although there are neither legal requirements for trustees to be qualified nor compulsory exams for them to sit, the Pensions Act has thrown a spotlight on the way they operate.

The pensions landscape in the UK is rapidly shifting as the Government tries to find the best way of encouraging millions of middle- and lower-income savers to put money aside for their retirement.

A White Paper is expected in the spring at the end of a government consultation into the proposals made by Lord (Adair) Turner and his Pensions Commission.

Major policy ideas now being studied include raising the retirement age as high as 68 and setting up a new national pension savings scheme. However, the Pensions Commission's proposals have already run into opposition from the financial services industry (see News, page 23).

A complex mix of poor investment performance and tough rules on liability and solvency has left occupational pension fund deficits at close to record levels. Against this background, the involvement of lay volunteers in the whole business is coming under ever closer scrutiny. And the new laws being introduced in October will put the members of this corporate club in the public eye once again.

In 2000, as part of areview of pension fund management in the UK, Paul Myners, then chairman of investment manager Gartmore and currently chairman of Marks & Spencer, was asked by the Government to review the role of voluntary pension fund trustees. One of his suggestions was that they should receive some form of payment. Butthe idea was abandoned.

Despite this, the Government wants to boost from a third to a half the number of trustees on a company pension scheme panel who are also involved in the running of its funds. Were it to come about, this change could give greater responsibility to many lay volunteers.

Mr Ellison of the NAPF is concerned that potential recruits could be scared off by headlines appearing almost daily in the press, concerning the failure of final salary schemes and the looming pensions crisis.

"Although the evidence is anecdotal, there is some suggestion that lay people are being put off," he says.

Last year, a report from financial services company Mellon concluded as much. Over-regulation was adding to "the cumulative effect of fewer lay people willing to volunteer", it said.

Yet active interest does remain. As there is no overall body representing pension trustees, the NAPF recommends that anyone wanting to get involved should start by contacting the employer running their fund.

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