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Row over 'rip-off' charges under pension scheme

THE successful early roll-out of the Government's auto-enrolment into pensions at work is in danger of being undermined by a renewed row over so-called "rip-off" charges.

Despite the positive news of unexpectedly high enrolment rates among the first swathe of big firms to begin auto-enrolling employees, more headlines have been generated by the Office of Fair Trading's inquiry into the charges employees should be paying.

Meanwhile, the Department for Work & Pensions has just closed a consultation on whether to set a cap on annual charges of 0.75% or 1%.

Edinburgh-based Aegon UK and Scottish Life have both protested that a cap will do more harm than good.

Angela Seymour Jackson, managing director of Aegon's workplace solutions arm, said: "There's a risk too much focus on driving down charges will mean many good existing schemes with high employer contributions and other valuable features fail a 'charge test'.

"This would force employers to make emergency changes or, worse, still start from scratch, which could result in members receiving lower employer contributions."

Aegon says imposing new conditions on employers as auto-enrolment is reaching its peak could be a "disaster" for consumer confidence, and warns that charges are "no more significant in terms of delivering good member outcomes than the level of contributions, starting early, continuing to contribute and obtaining good investment performance".

Phil Loney, chief executive at Royal London the owner of Scottish Life, said the Government should be aiming to "improve competition by removing barriers to switching pensions provider, not stifling completion by imposing an arbitrary 'market norm' for charges -which may actually have the effect of 'levelling up' average charges".

Commenting on the call by consumer watchdog Which? for the Government to set a cap of 0.5%, Malcolm Small, senior pensions policy adviser at the Institute of Directors, said: "Capping so-called 'rip-off' pension charges makes a great populist soundbite, but the reality is much more complex.

"For many new automatic enrolment schemes, for example, competition in the market has already driven down charges to less than the 0.5% proposed by Which?.

"However, smaller schemes are always more expensive to administrate, and providers need to have the commercial freedom to charge more for them."

Mr Small added: "We know from other markets that charge caps can have lots of unintended consequences.

"If charges are deemed to be high - and we think, for the most part, they are not - then we should start by reducing the mountain of regulation that affects pension schemes and raises costs to members, and the financial levies schemes are expected to pay.

"Saving for later life should not be difficult, but we in the UK make it extraordinarily complex."

Tom McPhail, at Hargreaves Lansdown, said that to characterise any fund charging more than 0.5% as a rip-off was a "ridiculous accusation".

Legal & General, however, has already capped its charges at 0.5% and said even 0.75% is too high, arguing that the difference between 0.5% and 0.75% would mean more than £4 billion of "excess" fees extracted by its rivals.

Pensions campaigner Dr Ros Altmann said: "We should not be obsessed with charging levels - a 0.75% charge is not a 'rip-off' and driving charges down to just 0.5% is probably too low to allow for innovation in investment approaches for default funds."

Dr Altmann said the Government should focus initially on capping new auto-enrolment scheme charges and banning the practice of moving workers on to higher charges when they leave a firm. She said: "In the near-term, however, introducing a cap for schemes already set up could interfere with roll-out of auto-enrolment."

She said the Government should delay introducing most new controls until 2018.

But the former government adviser, who stood down this year after a spell as director-general of Saga, says the row is missing the elephant in the room - annuities. She said: "I believe that the current obsession with charges is missing a much more important issue, which is that there are no controls at all on the fees charged, or value for money offered, at the other end of the pension system when people can buy poor annuities, which are the wrong product at a bad value rate, and pay high fees to do so."

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