City: High time to empower pension fund members

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The Independent Online
THIS week the Government is due to release a White Paper containing its proposals to prevent a repeat of the Mirror Group pensions scandal, dating back to the days when that newspaper company was controlled by the late Robert Maxwell.

The signs are that it will do nothing of the sort. Instead it is likely to be little more than a cosmetic exercise, designed to look good without doing too much to disturb the status quo, in which pension fund trustees and managers tell their members no more than they think is good for them.

That, of course, was precisely the reason the Mirror scandal could happen: hundreds of millions of pounds were diverted from their intended purpose because most people were kept in the dark.

Last September, Professor Roy Goode's Pension Law Review Committee published a report that recommended ways to plug some loopholes, such as ordering a proportion of trustee places to be subject to election by the membership at large.

But the White Paper may not go that far, and pension experts still chant the mantra that 'nothing can prevent a determined fraudster if he is determined enough'. True, but life can be made as hard as possible for the villain.

As it is, the Government seems to have been too inclined to listen to industry warnings that employers might refuse to run pension schemes if they are made too expensive. And they are scared witless by the regulatory burden that has been dumped on the securities industry.

That is why Professor Goode's call for a pensions regulator is expected to be ignored. Instead, the White Paper will try to impose self-regulation, obliging professional advisers to blow the whistle if they smell misbehaviour.

The trouble with that is that no advisers - be they fund managers, actuaries, lawyers or accountants - want to anger a possibly innocent client. And even if the client turns out to have offended, the advisers do not want to get a name for whistle-blowing. That might turn off potential clients. Certainly, few company auditors warn shareholders of directors' misconduct.

Transparency and muscle are needed - transparency so pension fund members can see what's going on, and muscle to do something about it.

There is nothing to stop members being told annually what their individual contributions are worth, with a provisional calculation of how that should translate into a weekly pension at various retirement ages. The life insurance industry already does this, and many of the same companies manage life policies as handle pension funds. And for good measure, it could become mandatory to publish the list of securities the fund was invested in, so everyone concerned could have a good root around.

At this point, the nanny cry goes up that contributors might not 'understand' what was happening if the value of their contributions fell one year after a stock market slump, particularly if their pensions are to be worked out on the basis of final salary.

Sure, people would ask awkward questions. They are likely to be downright suspicious for some years, after the Mirror pensioners' tragedy. That might mean fund managers having to repeat some pretty basic answers, until uneducated laymen get complex arguments into their skulls. Why not? It's their money, after all.

And if they aren't happy, they should have the power to vote through change. At present, pension contributors are little more than passive customers of the trustees and managers. It is time that they were put in charge of their financial destiny.