Who can I complain to?

Retirement: In the latest in a series explaining the Pensions Act, Stephanie Hawthorne examines the routes that can be taken to resolve problems and disputes
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The Independent Online
You may whinge, moan, wail - all to no avail. Once upon a time, aggrieved pension scheme members could formally do little more than complain if they felt there was anything amiss with the running of their fund. The only other option was to go through the courts, a prohibitively expensive procedure.

Much has improved since then. Now there is a range of choices: the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service (OPAS), the Pensions Ombudsman and, from April 1997, internal dispute resolution procedures within the schemes themselves.

Resolving a problem internally is the initial option. As Malcolm McLean, chief executive of OPAS, explains: "The first port of call for any complaint or request for clarification on a pensions matter should be with the pension scheme itself."

The Pensions Act 1995 requires occupational scheme trustees to have internal dispute procedures for dealing with members' complaints. Trustees must nominate a person (usually the pensions manager) who is responsible for making the initial decisions. These must be made in writing and state that the member has a right to appeal.

Hugh Arthur of Biddle & Co points out: "People with this responsibility must be very careful indeed about the way in which they frame their decision. Amateur rugby referees can now be sued for negligence in the whistle-blowing area: what hope, therefore the negligent professional pensions `expert'?"

Virtually anybody with a connection to the scheme can make a complaint including active, deferred or pensioner members; a widow, widower or surviving dependants of a member; and potential members. The scheme cannot be used if the matter is already before the courts or an industrial tribunal or if the Pensions Ombudsman is investigating the case.

The Pensions Ombudsman normally allows complaints up to three years from the date of the event giving rise to the cause of the action. If the case is brought before the court, the limit is normally six years. But there are no time limits for bringing a claim under the internal dispute resolution procedure.

Members with a grievance have only six months from the date of the initial decision to appeal to the trustees. When the trustees give their decisions, they must also tell the member that he or she can invoke the assistance of OPAS and the Pensions Ombudsman.

OPAS is a voluntary organisation which gives advice to people with pension problems. A common difficulty is that because of job changes, people may have money in pension schemes they have lost touch with. The Pension Schemes Registry will help them trace their whereabouts.

For those with a problem with the selling or marketing of personal pension plans, the organisation to turn to for advice will usually be the Personal Investment Authority (PIA). If you are locked in a dispute with your occupational pensions scheme, the Pensions Ombudsman can step in to adjudicate.

As the final safety net, should the worse happen, you may be able to turn to the Pensions Compensation Board. It can step in where money is removed dishonestly from an occupational scheme and your employer is insolvent. In most cases it will be the trustees who will make a claim but any scheme member can do so. All claims must be in writing addressed to the Pensions Compensation Board.

The amount payable will 90 per cent of the loss or the amount needed to restore the scheme to 90 per cent funding. The board can award emergency compensation if pensioners' benefits or guaranteed minimum pensions are at risk. It will need to satisfy itself that there are reasonable grounds for believing the funds have been dishonestly removed.

OPAS, 11 Belgrave Road, London, SW1V 1RB (0171 233 8080); The Pension Schemes Registry, PO Box INN, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE99 INN (0191 225 6396); The Pensions Ombudsman, 11 Belgrave Road, London SW1V 1RB (0171 834 9144); Pensions Compensation Board, 11 Belgrave Road, London SW1V 1RB (0171 828 9794) Personal Investment Authority (PIA), 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5AZ (01715388 8860)

Stephanie Hawthorne is editor of Pensions World

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