Search This Site

23 Oct 07: Pensions Ombudsman launches 2006 Annual report

Tuesday 23 rd October 2007 : The Pensions Ombudsman today launched his 2006 Annual Report, together with a Digest of Cases, and presented a copy of the Report to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Martin Cullen TD, which is available on www.pensionsombudsman.ie.

Speaking at the launch the Minister thanked the Pensions Ombudsman, Mr Paul Kenny, for presenting him with his Annual Report for 2006 together with a Digest of Cases. He said that since the Office had opened in 2003 the number of complaints received had increased annually. A total of in excess of 1,700 complaints has been received to date by the Office. This, he felt, was primarily because more people were becoming aware of the existence of the Office and were also becoming more and more conscious of the importance of their pensions which for many represents the single most important asset that they own.

The Minister said that he was pleased to be able to report that extra resources had been allocated to the Office to deal with the increased workload. In addition he said that a number of legislative changes had been made which should enable the Office to operate more flexibly. Section 131 of the Pensions Act has been amended to allow the Pensions Ombudsman to bypass the Internal Disputes Resolution procedure in cases where there is clearly nothing to be gained from the process. However, this does not apply to public service pension schemes and the Minister expressed his concern at the delays that had been experienced by the Office in dealing with complaints under these schemes. This was often due to delays by public authorities in responding to complaints. In this regard the Minister stated “ I would like to take this opportunity of pointing out to the public authorities concerned how important it is that complaints are dealt with in a timely manner. The old adage that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ clearly applies here and it may be, as the Pensions Ombudsman has said, that a few prosecutions are needed under this heading to concentrate people’s minds on their obligations.” The Minister also referred to the “pay up and remedy regime” which has recently been introduced by the Pensions Board and which provides for the imposition of immediate fines rather than prosecutions in respect of certain less serious offences under the Pensions Act. He said that both these measures would provide for increased flexibility in investigating complaints and ensuring that appropriate measures are applied in a timely manner.

The Minister expressed concern that some of the major issues that had been raised by the Pensions Ombudsman in previous reports had also appeared in this year’s report. In particular the issue of poor communication by pension providers had again been reported on by the Pensions Ombudsman. In this regard the Minister said “I cannot overemphasise how important it is that there be clear and regular communication with members of pension schemes and that the Disclosure of Information regulations as set out under the Pensions Act are fully complied with.”

The Minister also referred to the important role the Pensions Ombudsman and his staff had in providing advice both to him and the public at large in relation to pensions’ issues. In this regard he took the opportunity of thanking the Pensions Ombudsman for the practical advice that he had given in relation to the preparation of the recent Green Paper on Pensions. He said that he was one person who, because of his position, was acutely aware of the possible effects of changes in pensions policy on the man in the street and because of this his experience and advice was particularly valuable. Referring to the Digest of Cases the Minister said that this was particularly useful document in that it draws attention to some of the more interesting cases that have been dealt with by the Office during the last year. He said that this document should be of practical benefit to those working in the industry, and particularly to trustees and others involved in dispute resolution. In conclusion the Minister congratulated the Pensions Ombudsman on the invaluable service he was providing to pension scheme members and their families and said “ I take comfort from the Pension Ombudsman’s conclusion that the pensions industry in Ireland is both well regulated and well run and that the public can rest assured that, for what many is the most valuable asset that they have, is being well looked after.”

Mr. Kenny, in presenting his report highlighted the fact that the number of complaints received in the Office during 2006 had again increased in comparison to 2005. A total of 439 files had been opened in 2006 compared to 389 files in 2005. In 2006 a total of 61 formal determinations were made, of which 32 were upheld in full or in part, compared to 76 determinations in 2005 of which 24 were upheld. While the number of determinations had decreased the percentage of complaints upheld had increased quite a bit from 32% to 52%. In addition to this 117 cases were settled by mediation and 75% of these went in favour of the complainant. Overall, therefore, the success rate of complainants improved considerably during the year from about 53% in 2005 to 67% in 2006. Mr. Kenny said that it was hard to say why this was so but said some of the complaints that had been received in earlier years were problems of long standing which had previously been refused but which had been submitted to his Office anyway.

Mr. Kenny said that cases outside his jurisdiction had been referred to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Financial Services Ombudsman or the Pensions Board as appropriate. He recorded his appreciation of the close co-operation that his Office receives from all of these bodies and in this regard referred to a Memorandum of Understanding that was signed during the year with the Pensions Board to complement the one already in place with the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Financial Regulator.

Referring to the complaints that his Office had received Mr. Kenny said that he had reported previously on the lack of urgency in some public sector areas in dealing with superannuation problems. While this had improved generally the health service continued to be a huge area of difficulty and one where a significant number of complaints were brought. Many of these related to the cost of buying back service that was previously non-pensionable, because it was part time or temporary. Mr. Kenny said that his concern was to see that members were not unfairly overcharged because of lengthy administrative delays. In this regard he said “ In some cases I am afraid that people who are very close to retirement age when they finally get to pay for their back service may lose out on tax relief – for which I can’t compensate them. Some superannuation sections are simply not well resourced, and this results in the neglect of the internal customer – very often, front-line staff with patients to look after and no time to follow up on their pension problems. They deserve better.” Mr. Kenny also referred to a number of specific cases where there had been inordinate delays in completing the internal disputes resolution process in public sector schemes. He said that it may well be that there will have to be prosecutions against Government Ministers in order to concentrate minds on what is, after all, the law of the land.

Mr. Kenny also referred to the Construction Workers Pension scheme and said that there was still a depressing number of complaints about the failure of employers to register members or to pay contributions, and, worst of all, the theft by employers of contributions that had been deducted and not remitted to the pension scheme. Mr. Kenny said he was pleased to say that he had been able to recover significant amounts of money for employees who had been treated disgracefully by their employer but that in a small number of cases there was still nothing that he could do where the employer had gone out of business. Mr. Kenny again referred to the problem of the large number of allegedly self-employed workers in this industry and said he understood that this was currently being examined. He also referred to the need to clarify the position of companies which describe themselves as employment agencies.

Referring to the recent Green Paper on pensions Mr. Kenny said “ I hope everyone who cares about retirement provision will take the opportunity that the Green Paper presents to air their views, their wisdom and even their prejudices, and take the consultation process seriously. Far too many people stay silent when they have an opportunity to speak, and then complain afterwards that the wrong thing was done.”

Mr. Kenny said that he was concerned with the technical flaws in the design of some pension schemes that produce bad results for the member. He specifically referred Schemes where the cost of death and sometimes disability benefits are a first charge on fixed contributions and said that if these are not carefully watched, there is a danger that the cost of these benefits will erode pension savings as members get older and insurance gets more expensive. He said that “Pension professionals involved in these cases need to be extremely careful about what they sell – and about after-sales service as well.”

Mr Kenny concluded by thanking the Minister and the staff of his Department for the invaluable support that he had received in establishing his Office and its ongoing operation and hoped that the Minister regarded it as money well spent.

Notes:

Mr Paul Kenny was appointed as Pensions Ombudsman in April 2003 and his Office was open for business in September, 2003. The opening of the Office was another milestone in the reform process commenced in 2002 with the passing of the Pensions (Amendment) Act, 2002. Under that Act the Pensions Ombudsman has the power to investigate and determine:

 

  • complaints made by or on behalf of occupational pension schemes or Personal Retirement Savings Accounts (PRSAs) who allege that they have suffered financial loss as a result of maladministration by those charged with managing these arrangements,
  • any dispute of fact or law brought to his attention that arise from the actions of those administering occupational pension schemes or PRSAs.

The Pensions Ombudsman can give such directions as he considers necessary or expedient to resolve a dispute. His directions can include a financial settlement to cover the actual financial losses incurred by a person making the complaint. The decisions of the Ombudsman are binding subject to the right of appeal to the High Court.

Contact Details

Office of the Pensions Ombudsman
36 Upper Mount Street
Dublin 2

Paul Kenny, Pensions Ombudsman: 01 647 1650

Email: info@pensionsombudsman.ie
Web: www.pensionsombudsman.ie.