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Defined Benefit (DB) pension schemes provide pension benefits based on salary and length of service. There are statutory minimum requirements on them to:

  • Index pensions in payment in line with inflation, capped at 5% for benefits accruing from service between April 1997 and April 2005, and at 2.5% for benefits accruing from April 2005 – known as Limited Price Indexation (LPI) (Pensions Act 1995, s51);
  • Revalue the deferred pensions of early leavers in line with inflation capped at 5%, and at 2.5% for rights accrued on or after 6 April 2009 (Pension Schemes Act 1993).

Before April 1997 there was no general obligation on Defined Benefit schemes to increase pensions in payment (although there was a requirement on schemes that were contracted out of SERPS to provide indexation capped at 3% on rights accrued from 1988).

Importantly, these are statutory minimum requirements -there is nothing to prevent schemes from making more generous arrangements through their scheme rules. Despite the fact that indexation was not made mandatory for rights accrued before 1997, it appears that many schemes did apply some form of inflation protection to pensions in payment on a voluntary basis and many applied LPI retrospectively to service before 1997 (Deregulatory Review, March 2007)

Development of the rules

In 1993, the Pension Law Review Committee, chaired by Professor Roy Goode, recognised the importance of indexation from the individual’s perspective:

Most important is the uncertainty with regard to inflation. The individual is concerned not with money amounts but with what the pension will buy.(Pension Law Reform. The report of the Pension Law Review Committee, para 3.1.10)

Despite this, the Committee did not recommend making LPI retrospective, because it:

[…] recognised that to require all earnings-related schemes to introduce LPI for pension rights accrued before the appointed date would place a considerable burden of costs on such schemes. (Ibid)

The Labour Government legislated to reduce the LPI cap to 2.5% for rights accrued from April 2005 in the Pensions Act 2004 (s278-9). Following a consultation, it had decided that “mandating some level of protection from inflation remains desirable” but that lower inflation levels made a reduction in the cap appropriate:

In 1995, when the legislation introducing LPI was passed, long-term expectations of inflation were significantly higher: the 5 per cent cap was only intended to provide for partial cover against inflation. But the Government’s success in reducing inflation means that mandatory indexation has effectively become full inflation cover, something which is proving disproportionately expensive for some schemes to provide. (Cm 5835, p23).

In December 2006, an independent review looked at whether LPI should be removed. However, the reviewers – representing the employer and union sides – were unable to agree. The Labour Government decided not to remove the requirement on the grounds that it was an important protection for members and there was no clear evidence that removing it would have a direct and significant effect on employer provision (Deregulatory Review, March 2007).

From April 2011, the Coalition Government changed the measure of inflation used for determining the annual minimum increases from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) (HC Deb, 8 July 2010, c14-16 WS).The change was controversial because the CPI inflation tends to be lower than RPI inflation. The impact of the legislative change on individual schemes would depend on what their rules said (DWP, Impact assessment, 12 July 2011).

The Government considered introducing a ‘statutory override’ to allow schemes to change their rules where they might otherwise be prevented from doing so. (DWP, The impact of using CPI etcconsultation on Government proposals, December 2010). However, it decided against on grounds that trust in pensions was important and that government justification demanded strong justification. Where a scheme did intend to change its rules for future accruals, employers would be required to consult (Government response to consultation, June 2011, para 18 and 34).

On 7 November 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the wording of the rules of the Barnardo’s pension scheme did not permit it to switch from the RPI to another index that it considered more appropriate unless the RPI had been officially withdrawn and replaced, which it had not.

Recent proposals for change

In its December 2016 report on Defined Benefit pension schemes, the Work and Pensions Select Committee said schemes that had latitude in their rules to switch to the CPI had tended to do so. It recommended that the Government consult on “permitting trustees to propose changes to scheme indexation rules in the interests of members”:

Pension promises are just that. Any change to the terms of them should not be taken lightly. In circumstances where an adjustment to the scheme rules would make the scheme substantially more sustainable, however, a reduction in benefits could well be in the interests of members.

In its February 2017 Green Paper, the Government asked for views on whether:

  • There was evidence to suggest an affordability crisis that would warrant permitting schemes to reduce indexation to the statutory minimum;
  • The Government should consider a statutory over-ride to allow schemes to move to a different index, provided protection against inflation was maintained;
  • The Government should consider allowing schemes to suspend indexation in some circumstances. (DWP, Security and Sustainability in Defined Benefit Pension Schemes, CM 9412, Feb 2017).

The March 2018 White Paper ruled out changes to override scheme rules:

212 We are committed to protecting members’ pension benefits, and are presently ruling out measures which would override provisions in scheme rules and allow employers, or schemes, to change the measure of inflation used to calculate annual increases. However, we will continue to monitor developments in the use of inflation indices. (Cm 9591, March 2018).

Members of some occupational pension schemes – such as the Hewlett Packard Pension Association – have called on the Government to change the law to require pre-1997 rights to be index linked. However, the Government has said it has no plans to do this, on the basis that it would mean “significant additional expenditure for any scheme and its sponsoring employer – see CDP- 2017-0016, September 2017.

The debate about whether the British Steel Pension Scheme should be able to reduce indexation to the statutory minimum for benefits accrued in the past is discussed in Library Briefing Paper CBP-8288.

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