Sunday 25 February 2018

Begg in unions' sights over plan to weaken workers' role in pensions

David Begg. Photo: Tom Burke
David Begg. Photo: Tom Burke
Charlie Weston

Charlie Weston

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has criticised moves by the Pensions Authority to effectively end the role of worker trustees of pension schemes.

The intervention by congress comes weeks after its former general secretary, David Begg, took over as chairman of the Pensions Authority.

Outgoing Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton offered Mr Begg the role, a decision that created controversy because she did not use the public service advertising or the appointments process.

Mr Begg, inset, was forced to defend his appointment last month as the new chair of the regulator for pension funds.

Now Fergus Whelan, a pensions expert at the trade union body where Mr Begg worked, has hit out at plans by the Pensions Authority to lessen the role of lay trustees.

Mr Whelan claimed the pensions industry was behind the move.

The intervention by congress is set to put Mr Begg under huge pressure to get the Pensions Authority to drop the idea.

The Pensions Authority has proposed that it would be mandatory to have a professional pension qualification to act as a trustee in pension schemes, a move that would rule out most worker trustees.

There are some 180,000 lay trustees of pension schemes in this country.

A broad range of groups have criticised the proposal when asked for their views as part of a consultation process, prompting an expectation that the proposal will be watered down.

It is feared the proposed change would lead to a mass exodus of unpaid trustees, to be replaced by a limited number of professionals in fewer schemes.

Mr Whelan claimed the lay trustee plan was "a ploy to disguise industry failure".

The proposal would see control and oversight of pension funds taken away from those who pay for them and "handed over to the same professionals that presided over a meltdown in Irish pension provision".

Mr Whelan said: "We've seen more than 700 defined benefit (DB) schemes closed down completely and the number of active members of DB schemes is down by nearly 140,000 and continuing to decline."

He said the notion that forcing trustees back to further education at major expense to the schemes suggests that the industry and the regulator have learnt nothing from what has transpired.

"If any group emerges from this catastrophe with credit it is the trustees who worked closely with worker and employer representatives to keep schemes running," Mr Whelan said.

The proposed changes are also opposed by the Irish Association of Pension Funds (IAPF), which represents trustees.

IAPF chairman Jim Foley told the association's annual dinner last night that it opposed any additional mandatory requirement for qualifications that might inhibit the many lay trustees that play such a critical role in occupational schemes.

"All trustees should be encouraged to take the prescribed qualifications on a voluntary basis with perhaps a greater emphasis on the qualification of the chairperson and independent professional trustees as well," Mr Foley said.

A spokesman for the Pensions Authority said trustee qualifications was one of many proposals under consideration as part of a reform process.

The authority published a consultation paper on trustee qualifications last September and has a synopsis of the findings is on its website.

"No definitive recommendations have been made yet and the authority is currently considering all of the submissions and suggestions received," the spokesman said.

Irish Independent

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