In a recent determination (PO-24554), the Pensions Ombudsman has indicated that it would generally expect pension providers to update their transfer processes, due diligence checks and member communications within “approximately one month” of new regulatory guidance being issued. This is significantly less than the three month period the Ombudsman has indicated would be acceptable in previous determinations.
Pension providers, schemes and administrators should ensure that they have processes in place to identify and review new regulatory guidance relating to transfers and scams and to implement any required changes promptly in light of this determination. If they are unable to make the required changes within one month the Ombudsman expects them to consider the need to suspend transfers until the necessary changes can be made.
The claimant, Mr R, was a member of the Scottish Motors Auctions Ltd Group Personal Pension Plan. In 2012, Mr R decided to transfer his pension benefits to a small self-administered scheme (SSAS) administered by Greenchurch Capital Ltd (Greenchurch). The receiving scheme submitted the necessary transfer paperwork to Aegon on 13 February 2013, the day before the Pensions Regulator issued its new scorpion leaflet and updated regulatory guidance on pension scams.
On 15 February, Aegon transferred £21,461.92 to Greenchurch. However, an administrative error within the receiving scheme’s bank caused the entire transfer value to be refunded back to Aegon. The transfer was eventually completed on 19 March 2013, one month and five days after the scorpion literature was published.
In 2017, Mr R complained that Aegon did not carry out the appropriate due diligence checks before transferring his pension fund to Greenchurch. Mr R claimed that the approach by Greenchurch was unsolicited. He also claimed that Aegon should have identified that the receiving scheme’s administrator was not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.
In addition, Mr R argued that Aegon did not comply with the new due diligence expectations which the Regulator set out in its scorpion guidance document. This document contained information for both providers and consumers relating to pension scams and listed various red flags associated with potential scams (including a warning about schemes that were newly registered with HMRC, which was the case here). Mr R claimed that Aegon failed to inform him of the potential consequences of transferring his pension benefits to the SASS. He maintained that had he received the relevant information and been made aware of the risks, he would not have proceeded with the transfer.
Aegon disputed this and contended that it acted appropriately and conducted adequate due diligence (taking account of market practice at the relevant time). Aegon pointed to previous determinations in which the Ombudsman has held that providers should be given up to three months to update their transfer processes following publication of the scorpion guidance in February 2013.
The Ombudsman did not uphold Mr R’s complaint finding that Aegon had acted appropriately and that it would not have been reasonable to expect it to have updated its transfer processes before the transfer was ultimately made.
Significantly, however, the Ombudsman took the opportunity to review the cases he has previously determined on this issue and, having done so and in light of the evolving regulatory position, he said that he considers that “a period of approximately one month would generally be sufficient for a provider to put in place any procedures necessary as a result of the Regulator’s new guidance”. Where a provider is unable to meet this timeframe, the Ombudsman said that he would expect them to consider suspending transfers until the relevant changes to their processes and member communications can be made.
This decision signals a significant tightening of the timeframe within which pension providers, schemes and administrators might be expected to update their processes in response to new regulatory guidance relating to scams and transfers.
Although the shorter timeframe for implementing new regulatory guidance on scams was not significant in the context of this complaint, given that the transfer was made just over one month after the scorpion literature was published, it may be significant in the context of other complaints relating to transfers made shortly after February 2013.
This decision also highlights the need for pension providers, schemes and administrators to ensure that they have effective systems in place to identify and respond to future regulatory guidance in this area. A one month timeframe within which to review new regulatory guidance, decide how to respond and implement changes leaves little room for delay. Should schemes or providers struggle to meet this timeframe the Ombudsman makes clear that they should consider the need to suspend transfers until any necessary changes to their processes and member communications have been made.
It is also possible that a similar timeframe may be applied in the context of other regulatory developments and changes in industry best practice, such as, for example:
- where new regulatory requirements or guidance are introduced relating to the support that must be provided to members when they are deciding how to access their benefits, or
- where new regulatory or industry guidance relating to incentive exercises is published.
Finally, this decision also serves as a reminder that the Pensions Ombudsman is not bound by his previous decisions.
If you would like to discuss what this decision means for your scheme or organisation please speak to your usual HSF adviser or contact one of our specialists.