UK Regulator Targets Defined Benefit Transfer Weaknesses

FCA bans contingent charging, finds British Steel pensioners received worse advice than most.

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has established a package of measures intended to reduce weaknesses in the defined benefit (DB) transfer market, including a ban on contingent charging in most cases. The measures also include additional support for customers who are considering whether to transfer out of a defined benefit plan or who have already transferred out.

The regulator said the move to prohibit contingent charging will eliminate the conflicts of interest that occur when a financial adviser only gets paid if a plan participant goes through with a transfer. It is also intended to benefit good advisers who often tell participants not to transfer in that it will help them compete with transfer-happy advisers.

To address ongoing conflicts, the FCA said advisers are now required to consider an available workplace pension as a receiving plan for a transfer, and if they recommend an alternative solution, they must demonstrate why it is more suitable.

“The proportion of customers who have been advised to transfer out of their DB pension is unacceptably high,” Christopher Woolard, the FCA’s interim chief executive, said in a statement. “While much of the advice we looked at was suitable, we are still finding too many cases in which transfers were not in the customer’s best interests.”

The FCA said it will also implement proposals that allow advisers to provide an abridged advice process, which is intended to help consumers access initial advice that is more affordable. However, the abridged process can only result in a recommendation not to transfer or a statement that it is unclear whether a consumer would benefit from a pension transfer without giving full advice.

The regulator also published an update to its collection of data concerning the appropriateness of  the advice firms have given to defined benefit pension participants looking to transfer out. The FCA provided feedback to more than 1,600 firms, which resulted in more than 700 of them giving up their permission to provide pension transfer advice.

Although the FCA said it found that there has been an improvement in the suitability of advice given over time, it said it is still concerned at the number of files that either appeared to be unsuitable or had information gaps. Seventeen percent of files had advice that appeared unsuitable, which the FCA said is too high, and it is undertaking 30 enforcement investigations as a result of its findings.

Some of the files reviewed by the FCA included advice given to members of the British Steel Pension Scheme. It said it found that the percentage of unsuitable files was higher than those in the rest of the sample. Of the 192 instances of advice to former British Steel pension members that were reviewed, 47% appeared to be unsuitable, 32% appeared to contain information gaps, and only 21% appeared to be suitable. As a result, the FCA said it will write directly to the approximately 7,700 former members who transferred out of the plan and for whom contact details are available. It said this will help them revisit the advice they received and allow them to complain if they have concerns.

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