More pension woe for ombudsman

The pensions ombudsman, Julian Farrand, accepted 353 complaints about occupational pensions schemes for examination in the year to the end of March, about 25 per cent up on last year.

He received a total of 2,186 complaints, almost half of which were outside his terms of reference. Almost as many were passed on to the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service to explain or to mediate.

The steep increase in his case-load is part of a wider trend, which has seen steady increases in complaints by consumers to ombudsmen throughout the financial services sector. Last week the building societies ombudsman, Brian Murphy, reported a 15 per cent increase in his caseload in 1994- 95.

The increase reflects rising public anxiety as well as increased awareness of financial matters, and has forced ombudsmen to streamline their procedures and seek ways to reach quicker judgements.

The pensions ombudsman has also taken on more cases for informal decisions, a process that has increased the case-load and simultaneously reduced the time taken to reach a decisionfrom an average of 16 months to 11 months in the last year and eight months in the current year so far.

Dr Farrand found the complaints justified in almost four out of five cases going as far as a final judgement, and awarded nearly pounds 1m in settlements and compensation.

This should not be seen as a serious failure for the occupational pensions industry, Dr Farrand said yesterday.

"The figures for successful complaints were tiny when compared to the totality of schemes and sums involved," he said.

The ombudsman cannot adjudicate on personal pensions or develop custom and practice. He can only rule on individual cases based on current law. Misleading information about the likely level of pension benefits was the largest single cause for complaints. Attempts by pension fund trustees to recover initial over-payments were the second largest.

Dr Farrand expects a further growth in his caseload. But divorced women will not be able to complain to the ombudsman because they will still not be beneficiaries of their husbands' pensions under the Government's proposed Pensions Bill, he said yesterday.

The proposals will be debated in the Commons today and tomorrow, and will push forward plans to authorise pension trustees to pay part pensions to divorced spouses - but only when the pensioner actually retires, and for as long as he lives.

But the Government is resisting proposals to split pension entitlements and make spouses full beneficiaries To do so would create separate tax entitlements and also require unfunded civil service pension schemes to put up actual capital to create a split fund which divorced wives could transfer to their own pension funds.