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23 Oct 03: Address to the IAPF, Cork - Speech by Paul Kenny, Pensions Ombudsman

Mr Chairman, Members of the Southern Region Committee of the IAPF, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: It is a particular pleasure for me to address you here today at the IAPF Annual Lunch. For many years, in IPT and later in Mercer and Marsh, I had lots of occasions to visit Cork. I always looked forward to being here, and I was always made to feel very welcome. I feel particularly honoured today to be asked to address the first major function of the Southern Region since my appointment. That, as you may know, took place at the end of April. But it took another four months to get the office up and running. The Regulations that completed my terms of reference were not signed until 2nd September. In fact, there were three statutory instruments made on the same day: one commenced relevant sections of the Pensions (Amendment) Act; another dealt with the question of Internal Dispute resolution and the definition of Administrator, and completed the picture as far as my operations are concerned. The third commenced a section of the Social welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, that took my investigations outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. I am pleased to say that they will shortly be outside the Data Protection Act as well. While all this drafting of Ministerial orders was going on, I am pleased to say I wasn't sitting on my hands. There was an office to set up. I'm located at 36 Upper Mount St in Dublin, and we can see the Pensions Board boardroom over the rooftops (more of that anon..). It's a Georgian house, and came with the usual problems. First we gave it a coat of paint, replace a few windows, and two sections of the staircase that were held together with carpet and tacks. Staff had to be found, a process that is not yet complete. Booklets had to be drafted. We've just got back the tenders for design and print for those. Like the website, which was also a big project, the booklets will be produced in Irish and in English. I'm particularly pleased with the website, which is at www.pensionsombudsman.ie. I hope that you will find it user-friendly and accessible. We've provided a facility for sending complaints forms in on the web, as well as for downloading them from the site. But the best part for me was that there was time to consult with the 2 officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs on the drafting of the Regulations. I was conscious of a number of lessons to be learned from the experience of my counterpart in the United Kingdom. His pleas to the Commons Select committee for simplification of the system are nothing short of heartrending. Now, it's difficult to start Complicated, and try to do Simple later on - it's far more sensible in my view to try to start as simple as possible, and do complicated later if it becomes absolutely necessary. This was very important in the area of Disputes Resolution. To me, it was unthinkable that we should impose a complex system on schemes from outside. I couldn't see any justification for the UK model - disputes resolution - 3 months; appeal from that - 6 more months; and then on to OPAS, the Pensions Advisory Service, before a complaint could reach the Ombudsman at all. Anyway a single solution for schemes of all sizes just didn't seem feasible. So what we've got now is a situation where trustees are free to adopt any solution that fits the size and circumstances of their scheme - provided certain prescribed information is included in the Notice of determination given to the complainant. And public authorities can keep the systems they already had, of an appeal to the relevant Minister or Ministers - though I'm afraid they'll have to speed up those processes quite a bit. The big thing is to make complainants realise that they've got to go through that process before they can bring their complaints to me. The booklet, What can the Pensions Ombudsman do for you? should be of some help. When the Disclosure Regulations are revised, I hope also that the existence of a disputes procedure will be part of the Basic Information about the scheme, which everybody will need to be given. There are a few exceptions to the need to go through the process. Cases where the Pensions Board has already examined the complaint seemed an obvious area to exempt from further process. The others are frozen schemes where there is no employer trading, and scheme that were already in winding-up when the regulations were made. It didn't seem sensible to add any expense to scheme in those positions. Incidentally, I'd like to thank the Chief Executive of the Pensions Board for the quite remarkable speed with which the files on their cases are delivered when we ask for them! The other lesson from the UK was applied in defining the Administrator for the purpose of fixing the blame for an act of maladministration. It was found more than once that the place where a mistake was made that resulted in loss to an individual did not come under the definition of administrator over there. It didn't seem sensible to me that I should make an order against those with legal responsibility - that is, the trustees - and leave them, perhaps, to sue whoever was actually responsible. So you will find that the definition of administrator includes anyone providing a service in connection with the administration of a scheme; anyone to whom the Section 59 duties are delegated - an that includes collecting and investing the money, paying the benefits and keeping