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Autumn Statement: UK government looks to crack down on pension scams

The government will shortly publish a consultation on ways to tackle pension scams, including banning cold calling in relation to pensions, chancellor Philip Hammond said in his Autumn Statement.23 Nov 2016

The rules will cover the targeting by scammers of people who inadvertently ‘opt-in’ to receiving third party communications, Hammond said.

Other options include giving firms greater powers to block suspicious transfers and making it harder for scammers to abuse ‘small self-administered schemes’, Hammond said.

In April 2015 members of defined contribution pension schemes were given more flexibility about how they access their savings once they turn 55. Over 1,000 people complained to the Information Commissioner's Office about unsolicited calls and texts relating to their pensions within a month of the new rules being introduced, the privacy watchdog said.

Pension scams, such as liberation arrangements, can also affect those under 55. Rules governing pension schemes prevent an individual from claiming pension benefits until they reach the age of 55, unless doing so on ill-health grounds. However, some schemes market themselves as a way of giving pension scheme members access to their savings before they reach retirement age. In a typical arrangement, money representing a saver's pension rights is transferred out of their existing scheme into a new scheme, which is often of an exotic, unregulated structure and based offshore, and then making the money available wholly or partly as a cash loan back to the saver. This can put members' savings at risk.

Cash payments made from these schemes, through purported loans or commission, can also attract tax penalties. Tax charges on any unauthorised payment can be as much as 55% of the value of that payment.

Pensions disputes expert Ben Fairhead of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, said: "The wider consultation looking at ways to tackle pension scams sounds like an excellent opportunity for the pensions industry to look at this problem and identify other ways in which the law can be tightened to make it as difficult as possible for scammers to operate. We await further details of the consultation but there does seem to be much more appetite now for change in this area. As such, this development is encouraging and could pave the way for a real breakthrough in dealing with the scourge of pension scams."

In August the UK Insolvency Service announced that it had wound up a business, Thames Trustees, which it said had "facilitated and operated a pension liberation scheme". The business "operated with a lack of transparency and a lack of commercial probity" and provided clients with access to their pension funds earlier than permitted under the Finance Act 2004, the Insolvency Service said.

The Insolvency Service had investigated the company's practices and had it successfully wound-up by the High Court. This was the third time in just over a year that the Insolvency Service had intervened to address pension liberation scam.

A voluntary Code of Good Practice on combating pension scams was developed in early 2015 by a cross-industry group chaired by Margaret Snowden of the Pensions Administration Standards Association (PASA), with the backing of the Pensions Regulator, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and other industry groups.

The code emerged on the same day as the Pensions Regulator, which oversees trust-based occupational pension schemes, refreshed its advice on scams.