Pensions Watchdog Boosts Speed Amid Likely Surge In Cases

By Martin Croucher
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Law360, London (July 17, 2020, 6:46 PM BST) -- The Pensions Ombudsman said it has improved the speed at which cases can be handled, as it gears up for a potential surge of complaints linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The consumer protection body said in its annual report that just 5% of complaints it receives require a determination from the ombudsman. The remaining 95% are handled "informally" through other processes like its new early disputes resolution system.

In the 2018-2019 financial year, just 80% of complaints were handled through informal channels, it said Thursday. 

The changes come as the Ombudsman, Anthony Arter, warned lawmakers at the start of the month that the body was likely to be "inundated" with complaints linked to the pandemic.

"As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, over the coming year we are prepared for a potential increase in the number of complaints received," Arter said in the annual report.

"This will include those relating to the furlough scheme, scams and transfers, payment of auto-enrolment contributions, pension benefit claims concerning ill health and redundancy, and delays in providing information and processing requests," he added.

The Ombudsman has taken on more staff to handle a growing workload. It said in the year to March 2020 it had fielded 11,552 telephone inquiries, an increase of 41% on the previous financial year.

The body said the number of investigations more than a year old represented just 11% of its caseload. Four years ago, that proportion was 35%. The average time it now takes to resolve a complaint is 3.9 months, it said.  

"By resolving complaints earlier in the process, we save all parties from having to go through lengthier processes which can be both stressful for complainants and resource intensive for respondents," Arter said.

It said 23.6% of its closed investigations in the past year were over pension transfers, related to calculation of transfer values or misinformation.

The government introduced controversial freedoms in 2015 that enabled savers to transfer their money out of defined benefit schemes into defined contribution plans.

Approximately 210,000 individual transfers took place from defined benefit schemes in the financial year between 2018 and 2019, with a total value estimated at £34 billion.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

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