Error on the side of caution: The main recommendations of the long-awaited report on occupational pension schemes has disappointed all involved. Paul Durman reports

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THE long-awaited Goode report on pensions, initiated after the Maxwell pension fund scandal, landed with a heavy thud and a sigh of dissatisfaction in the pension industry. At 1,000 pages, no one can accuse Professor Roy Goode's document of being short on detail. But it has failed to live up to the expectations of the pensions industry, which claims that it is too cautious, not sufficiently radical and that it may turn out to have been a disastrous missed opportunity.

Before publication of the Goode Committee's recommendations, the pensions industry was warning of the dangers of regulatory overkill.

Too many new rules and obligations, the experts said, would prompt employers to abandon generous earnings-related schemes in favour of defined contribution arrangements, with more certain costs. Far from being better protected, most employees would lose out.

Yet many in the industry now think the report's proposed changes not tough enough. They contain little to justify fears that they would hasten the demise of traditional occupational schemes.

The Campaign for Pension Fund Democracy, a union- backed body, complained - perhaps predictably - that the report left employers with too much power to raid pension fund surpluses. But the National Association of Pension Funds, the employers' side of the industry, was unhappy that the committee did not call for compulsory training of trustees, or for the use of independent custodians to look after scheme assets.

The actuaries and pension consultants were more critical. The report was a missed opportunity for radical reform, according to Sedgwick Noble Lowndes, the financial advisers. Bacon & Woodrow, the actuaries, said it was more biased towards looking after the employer than the employee.

This failure to match up to expectations is all the more remarkable when one recalls the disaster that prompted Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, to commission the report in June 1992. Maxwell's abuse of his companies' pension schemes had badly shaken confidence in occupational pension funds and given them unprecedented prominence.

The danger, it seemed, was an over-reaction to what was - like the late Maxwell - always an exceptional case.

Most of the report's 218 recommendations are eminently sensible: a single pensions regulator with the power to investigate badly run schemes and to punish trustees; a minimum solvency standard to ensure schemes can cover their liabilities; a right of employee representation on trustee boards; a compensation scheme to protect against fraud, theft and other misappropriation; a clear statement of the duties of professional advisers; and the provision of better and clearer information to scheme members.

But as the committee recognised: 'Many of our recommendations do little more than reflect best practice, and, when taken with the simplification measures we have proposed, should add few, if any, financial burdens to a well-run and properly funded scheme.'

Despite the widespread view that the report is 'not Goode enough', the chairman professed himself 'very happy with the initial response . . . which on the whole has been very favourable'. He added: 'I don't see that radicalism is necessarily a virtue in itself. I don't see why a report has to be radical in order to be sensible. What we need is not change for the sake of change, which has no great virtue, but the changes that are necessary to ensure that scheme members receive a fair deal.' Countering the suspicions of some actuaries, Prof Goode said the report was not watered down under pressure from ministers or the Department of Social Security.

Critics find fault with the proposals to give pension scheme members a right to appoint at least one-third of the trustees, with a minimum of two. The report suggests this right be restricted to schemes with fewer than 50 members. Yet it is just these smaller schemes, often closely controlled by the sponsoring employers' directors, where there is more likely to be a problem.

The Campaign for Pension Fund Democracy advocated a majority of employees on trustee boards. The one-third representation seems to leave control firmly in the hands of employers.

Martin Miles, a partner with Bacon & Woodrow, believes it may have been a mistake to make employee representation a right rather than a requirement. He explained: 'If you've got an autocrat like Maxwell for an employer, if you go and ask him (for employee representation), it could be that's the end of your job. It's putting employees in a difficult position.'

Member trustees serve little purpose unless they understand their responsibilities and are sufficiently well informed to perform them. Employees were well represented on the Maxwell pension schemes, but what good did that do? Hence, some believe, trustees must be properly trained.

Prof Goode has answers for all of these. Smaller schemes are almost invariably set up for the benefit of the company's proprietors and can look after themselves. The less onerous requirement for member representation among the trustees of final salary schemes reflects employers' ultimate responsibility for meeting the schemes' commitments.

He thinks it unlikely that employees would be victimised when their rights are enshrined in legislation. And it is simply not practicable to require the many thousands of trustees to take even a preparatory training course.

The Goode Committee was never going to be able to please all the pension interests. And sceptics may wonder whether the pensions consultants' objections simply reflect their disappointment that the chance to earn fees for advising on the changes is not going to be as great as they hoped.

Whatever the industry's disappointments with the report, implementation of the Goode proposals would still be a big advance in regulating pensions. But Mr Lilley has made it clear that no pensions legislation will be possible before the 1994/5 parliamentary session. This means the new safeguards are unlikely to take effect until 1996.

Prof Goode, who will return to the study of commercial law at Oxford University, hopes the timetable will not slip any further, though he understands the need for lengthy consultation on such a complex topic. 'We are hoping to see our report adopted as soon as it reasonably can be,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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