Pension Scheme Trustees: Coronavirus/Covid-19 Considerations

31 / 03 / 2020

Over the past few weeks, Wedlake Bell has been assessing and will on an ongoing basis over the coming weeks continue to assess, the potential disruption that could be caused by the increasing restrictions imposed by the Government in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. 

The Pensions & Employee Benefits Team is now working remotely, but with full access to your scheme’s legal documentation via our robust and secure systems.

We would like to reassure you that we are doing everything we can to ensure (i) the health and wellbeing of our staff, clients, contacts and friends; and (ii) that we remain fully open for business – helping our clients in whatever they need.

The pandemic is affecting us all in one way or another and we continue to closely monitor Government advice and to act accordingly.

We wish you and your families well and hope that you stay in good health and in good spirits.

The role of the Trustee 
Your role as a pension scheme trustee has never been so important as it is now. It is imperative that you do your best to keep matters running and under review. Asking questions of your advisers is to be encouraged in these challenging and unprecedented times. As always, evidencing good governance is all important.  
How might defined benefit pension schemes be affected?
Trustees and sponsors of defined benefit pension schemes should be aware of the statement from The Pensions Regulator published on 20 March 2020 – see the Appendix for the full statement. The Regulator has also issued: Covid-19 Guidance to Trustees on DB scheme funding and investment (27 March 2020), accessible via this link: https://www.thepensionsregulator.gov.uk/en/covid-19-coronavirus-what-you-need-to-consider/db-scheme-funding-and-investment-covid-19-guidance-for-trustees 

Business continuity is vital for all pension schemes at this difficult time and no doubt you are already in contact with your advisers, and administrators, on the potential consequences that the pandemic may have on your scheme. Trustees should be opening dialogue with their sponsors, advisers and administrators to consider funding, investment and covenant impact through their ‘Integrated Risk Management’ plan as well as making sure pensioners continue to receive their benefits on time. 
Communication with members
This may be more difficult if the Government announces further ‘lockdown’ measures but engaging with your members now in order to reassure them that formal Business Continuity Plans are in full swing is encouraged. Use of websites, telephone helplines, email or hard copy announcements (if possible) will help achieve this.  
Virtual Trustee meetings
Scheme business must continue and virtual Trustee meetings are likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. Whether these are conducted by telephone or video conference will differ depending on the technology available, but preparation is key and dry-runs should be encouraged in order to ensure that all Trustees are comfortable with any new technology. The role of the Chair will also be vital in making sure that virtual meetings are effective and efficient – laying down some ground-rules before meetings commence is imperative (e.g. clear agenda; strict timings, which advisers are (virtually) present and when in order to reduce the number of voices speaking at any one time; removing distractions and placing phones on a ‘do not disturb’ setting; time set aside for questions; and generally encouraging participants to treat a virtual meeting in the same way they would treat a formal face-to-face meeting).  
Wedlake Bell contacts
Contact details for the Pensions & Employee Benefits Team are set out below. Please do not hesitate to contact us: 

Justin McGilloway
jmcgilloway@wedlakebell.com
+44 (0)20 7395 3076
+44 (0)7894 755608

Alison Hills
ahills@wedlakebell.com
+44 (0)20 7406 1651
+44 (0)7540 913772

Clive Weber
cweber@wedlakebell.com
+44 (0)20 7395 3177
+44 (0)7793 526128

Paul Ashcroft
pashcroft@wedlakebell.com
+44 (0)20 7395 3020
+44 (0)7595 272078
 
Please remember that Wedlake Bell is a full service firm, if you or your business have any other legal queries arising out of the coronavirus, such as employment law queries (e.g. furlough provisions), please do not hesitate to contact us as we can put you in touch with a colleague who will be able to assist.

Appendix

Link to the Regulator’s statement from 20 March 2020 (full text can be found below):  https://www.thepensionsregulator.gov.uk/en/covid-19-an-update-for-trustees-employers-and-administrators

COVID-19: an update for trustees, employers and administrators

These are unprecedented, challenging and uncertain times for trustees, employers, administrators and, crucially, savers.

There are different pressures on different areas of the pensions system.

We have provided guidance below for those we regulate and work with.

This page will be updated over the coming weeks as we respond to feedback, intelligence and the evolving risks.

Published: 20 March 2020.

COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Trustees of both defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) schemes, employers and administrators should focus their activities on the key risks to pension savers:

  • benefits need to be paid (DB only)
  • the risk of scams needs to be minimised
  • employers need to continue contributing
  • savers need support to make good decisions in these challenging circumstances
  • some administrative breaches of the law may occur and we will maintain a proportionate and fair approach to any action we may take

We are closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation, and working collaboratively with government, regulators and other bodies to assess the most immediate risks to pension schemes.

On this page

Our expectations of trustees

You need to be alive to risks that would have significant consequences for your scheme and members. Assess whether your business continuity plan (BCP) is still adequate and contact your administrator or service provider to find out what contingency is in place to mitigate their impact of increases in work volumes or unavailable staff.

You should make it clear which activities should be prioritised in the event of under-resourcing, such as pensioner payments, retirement processing and bereavement payments. Confirm this priority order with your administrators or providers and work with them if there are any issues with these activities.

If you are the trustee of a DB scheme and your sponsoring employer is at risk, or has asked you to reduce or suspend your scheme’s deficit repair contributions (DRCs), please read the page on corporate distress.

Helping protect your members from scams

Savers might increasingly look to transfer their pension, prompted by the instability of their employer or the financial markets.

This means they could be increasingly targeted by scammers attempting to lure them to ‘safe havens’. If a saver asks about transferring their pension, urge them to exercise extreme caution and visit ScamSmart which has specific guidance relating to COVID-19.

Trustees should also signpost their members to the Money and Pensions Service – particularly those approaching retirement and whose pension may have been affected by the current economic conditions.

Administrators

COVID-19 is placing huge additional pressures on the administration of pension schemes. Administrators should prioritise payments of benefits, retirement processing and bereavement services, as well as any administrative functions required to support these. After this you should focus on the processes you need to ensure accurate benefits (eg investment of contributions).

We understand that many non-critical trustee and member services may be affected, for example you may have to delay responding to member queries or producing annual benefit statements.

Trustees and administrators should report to us immediately if they believe they will be unable to pay members’ benefits. Please report everything else to us as normal and we will take a pragmatic approach in our response.

Employers

We know this is a challenging time for everyone and we recognise the strain this is putting on employers.

We will take a proportionate and risk-based approach towards enforcement decisions, in light of these challenging times, with the aim of helping to get employers back on track and supporting both employers and savers.

The government has published information about support for employers, employees and businesses affected by COVID-19.

Timings of our regulatory communications, publications and events

We are temporarily suspending all our regulatory initiatives. If you have been selected to take part, we will be in direct contact with you regarding our expectations and next steps.

We are postponing the publication of our Corporate Plan, our long-term strategy, and our consultation on bringing together our codes of practice to form one single code. Our DB funding consultation is open, and we will review timings in the coming weeks.  We have cancelled or moved all scheduled events.

If you are in difficulty

Please contact us if you have immediate concerns with your scheme, administration or cannot pay your contributions.