Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid looks at pensions law


It is safe to say quarterly trustee meetings are never the highlight of my year. Not that my job is otherwise a whirlwind of glittering excitement, but if there is something guaranteed to sink the Candid heart, it is anything to do with pensions. This trustee meeting is not likely to be any better than the rest. In fact, it could be even less glamorous as we are down for another round of trustee training. Smarmy Consulting has set up a three-hour slot on ‘Changing the Scheme Trust Deed and Rules’.

I mean, really. I would hope that we have already made any such changes to the deed as necessary based on advice from Smarmy, and should we need to do so again, we will assuredly take further advice. So, learning any more about it is just three hours of my life that I will never get back.

Even before that particular excitement, the morning starts with a whole session on applications for a new member-nominated trustee. Peter has given notice because he is finding it hard to meet the time commitment. I suspect it is really that he has discovered being a trustee is not nearly as much fun as he thought it might be. If I had that choice, I’d resign for sure. Les, on the other hand, despite being extremely elderly, seems perfectly happy to soldier on indefinitely. I wonder if he is after some kind of longevity prize, or is his life otherwise so empty that trustee training seems like a good time?

Somewhat surprisingly, there is an unthinking clutch of employees willing to take Peter’s place and we waste a morning discussing their experience and drafting the selection notice to go to all members. Pick someone likely to stick around so we don’t have to talk about it again for a while is my silent request. I don’t understand why Smarmy didn’t just draft something for our approval. It is bad enough having to be a trustee without wasting a morning on unnecessary deliberations.

It is not as though Smarmy even gives us a decent lunch any more. When I first became a trustee, we had a choice of hot meals delivered to the meeting room along with a selection of cold drinks and even proper coffee. Now, we get a few dry sandwiches and a sausage roll if we are lucky. I note the cost of the meeting has not reduced. At least I can reassure my socialist colleague that we are not partying at the members’ expense. She read that City financial services staff drink champagne at meetings, bumping up pension costs and generally making life pitiful for all future pensioners. While this scoop no doubt came from Daily Lies, it may actually be true of some City firms, but sadly not when trustees are in the room. Still, the member-nominated trustees seem to relish the spread, gathering up handfuls of fresh fruit and making sure we leave all the plates clean. It is a measly perk for their time, really.

After lunch, the training begins with a thud. Smarmy has rolled in not one but two pension lawyers to go through, in numbingly soporific detail, the finer points of pensions law as it pertains to the pension trust. The first proceeds to inform us in a toneless drone what constitutes a trust deed. Lordy.

I look round at the other trustees. Len the retiree must be used to a nap after lunch, but I am surprised to find he is still with us, and Peter is just doodling heavily on his notepad. I fidget, crossing and uncrossing my legs. I practice my kegels, and calculate how much I am being paid an hour, including benefits, but all to no avail. Is it only me who finds pensions law so painful it actually hurts? I feel quite sure this was not what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Then the second lawyer takes his turn. Oh, the excitement of a new voice. Sadly, he too intones in a deadly monotone. He has a clicker to change slides, but inexplicably he puts it down on a far table each time. Then, when he wants to move to the next page in the presentation, he has to walk across the room. And his shoes squeak. This happens again and again for over 30 slides. Will the afternoon never end?

Just when I think I can’t stand it any longer, when I am actually going to grab the clicker and shove it somewhere, the lawyers leave and our scheme actuary takes over. There are just 30 minutes before the end of the meeting for them to go through the financials. The scheme deficit looms ever larger; a number so vast I can’t even visualise it. It turns out the markets went in the opposite direction to that expected. Big surprise! It never ceases to amaze me how Smarmy can continue to get away with giving us useless financial advice. But it does. Quarter after quarter, it suggests investing in equity when we should have been in bonds or vice versa. We’ve tried passive management and active management, yet it always seems the other would have been a better choice. Still, it was the same with the previous advisors, and I am sure another firm would be no different.

As trustees, we really should be asking searching questions and demanding better advice, but at this point in the day we are energetically spent. I have a feeling the meeting has been carefully choreographed to bring about just that result: apathy. Still, we don’t want to miss our train, so perhaps we’ll pick up on it next time.

Next time… Candid is sick of market updates.