At the Irish Association of Pension Funds Annual Investment Conference held last week, Brendan Kennedy, the Pensions Regulator, reiterated the Pensions Authority’s continued focus on good governance and its plans for ramping up the Authority’s programme of engagement with trustees of defined benefit schemes. This engagement includes continuing to invite such trustees to meet with the Authority for detailed discussions on how the trustees undertake the management of their scheme and their governance responsibilities.

The Pensions Regulator has confirmed that the objective of these meetings is to find out what trustees know and understand. While the Authority recognises that trustees are faced with difficult responsibilities and must take advice in relation to matters in respect of which they have no or limited expertise (for example actuarial, legal and investment matters), as the responsibility for the scheme rests with the trustees, the Authority expects them to understand the advice they receive and the decisions they are required to take. It is for this reason that the Authority insists that the meeting with the trustees be without their financial or legal advisers.

The Authority has indicated that the financial management guidelines for defined benefit schemes (issued in May 2015) will be used as the basis for these discussions. These guidelines outline what the Pensions Authority views as good practice for trustees of defined benefit schemes in relation to their understanding and management of the funding and investment of their defined benefit scheme. While not legally binding, it is expected that the trustees (at a minimum) will have the information and understanding set out in these guidelines. The guidelines cover the scheme data the trustees should have, governance practices relevant to financial management, reviews/processes the trustees should undertake and the analysis the trustees should carry out to arrive at decisions.

Clearly, for defined benefit schemes, the focus is on financial matters and the Authority expects trustees to understand the strategies and plans being pursued by the scheme and be able to explain these and how they were arrived at. According to the Pensions Authority, trustees should know more than their members, have enough time and commitment to carry out the role as trustee properly and be able to ask the right questions (in particular, of their advisers). These meetings are seen as a permanent part of the Pensions Authority’s supervision of defined benefit schemes and perhaps, in the future, will be extended to large defined contribution schemes. It can be expected that the Authority will take a more robust regulatory approach to schemes where they have concerns about trustee ability following such meetings.

The Regulator also announced at the conference that the Pensions Authority was developing pension reform proposals for 2017 and a public consultation process for later this year.

As the management and governance of pension schemes continues to increase in complexity and risk both sponsoring employers and trustees of pension schemes are increasingly looking towards appointing professional advisers to bring knowledge, experience, and expertise to the governance and management of their pension schemes in an effort to reduce risk and achieve cost efficiencies.

It is important for trustees and the sponsoring employer (who ultimately may be footing the bill) to understand the nature of the relationship between them and the advisers they decide to appoint and to be prepared to question them (and the agreements governing the relationship) critically.  

Pension Scheme Administrators

Many sponsoring employers and trustees appoint pension administrators and consultants to assist in relation to their pension schemes.  The written agreements documenting such appointments should be reviewed.

Leaving aside the actual services to be provided by the administrator or consultant and the fees for doing so (which the trustees and sponsoring employer will need to be satisfied with) the key issues you must consider are:

  1. Who should be party to the agreement?
  2. What should the obligations and duties on the parties be?
  3. Who should be liable for what and what is a reasonable limit?
  4. How will conflicts, complaints and data protection be dealt with?
  5. Who controls the amendment of the agreement?
  6. Can the service provider get someone else to provide the service?
  7. How will the relationship be terminated?

Professional Trustees

Many sponsoring employers appoint professional or independent trustees.  This is often under a service agreement or letter of engagement. Many of the issues outlined above in relation to administration agreements will also arise in this context. It is imperative that you understand the effect of the key provisions of such documents and the relevant provisions of the pension scheme. Particular consideration needs to be given to the charging clause and indemnity and exoneration provisions under the scheme’s governing trust documentation and how these interact with the service agreement appointing the professional trustee. If such written agreements are not already in place this should be rectified.