UK employers failing to enable staff to use new drawdown flexibilities

Towers Watson publishes new research that shows the huge employee demand for pension drawdown is not being met and calls upon industry to develop best practices

1st September 2015 – New research from LifeSight, Towers Watson’s UK DC master trust, shows that only 4-in-10 (43%) employers plan to offer a drawdown option as part of their pension plan. Despite this, Towers Watson’s survey of over 100 employers reveals that nearly 9-in-10 (87%) employers believe that their staff will want to access some or all of their pension using the new drawdown flexibilities after the age of 55.

Fiona Matthews, Managing Director of LifeSight, Towers Watson’s master trust, commented: “The issue of people wishing to access their pension pots flexibly and understanding what drawdown options are actually being offered is a major challenge for pension providers and employers. Our survey shows a significant demand from employees to use drawdown for some or all of their pension benefits. However many employers and trustees have been slow to respond as they have been careful to balance giving people what they want with mitigating risk. Regular, consistent communication is crucial – trustees must ideally engage with members many years before retirement and, most crucially, with those now aged over 55 to ensure that they are fully informed and empowered.”

The survey reveals several reasons why pension plans have been reluctant to offer drawdown so far. It finds that the majority (69%) believe the management and implementation of drawdown is too difficult. Governance issues (59%), no desire from the employer (53%), and cost (45%) are other barriers to adoption.

The research shows that approximately two thirds of trust-based schemes are continuing to target annuity purchase for their default. This is despite the fact that around 44% of members reaching 55 in the next 10 years are likely to want to use the new drawdown flexibilities. Furthermore, 51% of trust-based schemes have not rolled out targeted communications to members aged over 55 since the new pension rules came into effect. This leaves trustees with a significant risk that retirees select an annuity, which is currently an irrevocable decision (notwithstanding the evolution of a secondary annuity market), and later regret it.

Matthews continues: “Based on our analysis, the ability to use drawdown is as important as the option to purchase an annuity for many members. Clearly there are some key challenges with making the new drawdown rules work in practice; some savers have been refused drawdown and some have experienced pay-out delays. It was inevitable there would be a trade-off between bringing the reforms in quickly and having everything working perfectly smoothly from the start. However now the new rules are in place the pensions industry must respond quickly to meet demand and agree best practices for drawdown. Once this happens I think we will see a tipping point where more employers and trustees feel able to compare a range of reliable products on the market, in order to consider partnering with a drawdown provider. Ultimately people should be well-informed about their options, and be able either to access drawdown within their own scheme or have the option to transfer their pots cheaply and easily so they can access the flexibilities via an alternative arrangement.”

These are the key learnings from the study for trustees:

  • Consider the appropriateness of their scheme’s investment options and how these are communicated to members
  • Engage with members from as early as 10-15 years before their selected retirement age
  • Support and engage with members nearing or at retirement to ensure they are fully aware of their options
  • Monitor the product market for any developments and to help understand emerging trends on how people are actually taking their benefits at retirement.

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