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‘We’re hugely worried’: UK private pension rule changes disrupt retirement plans

<span>Sudden changes to rules have been made when people are just about to retire.<br></span><span>Photograph: 10,000 Hours/Getty</span>
Sudden changes to rules have been made when people are just about to retire.
Photograph: 10,000 Hours/Getty

You’ve been dutifully paying into your company or private pension for years, maybe even decades, but then – perhaps when you’re just about to retire – they suddenly change the rules.

As a result, it looks like you may be hundreds or even thousands of pounds a year worse off.

A couple of decades ago, pensions were a wild west, with a string of scandals causing confidence to plummet, whether it was large-scale personal pensions mis-selling, workers losing their funds when their employers went bust, or the Equitable Life customers who saw their retirement savings slashed.

Tougher rules and regulations are now in place, but in recent weeks Guardian Money has heard from several people who are concerned about their retirement savings. Two tell their stories here.

Boots was a brand I placed my trust in’

Anne Harding is one of more than 20,000 current and former Boots employees who say they could be left out of pocket, in some cases by several thousand pounds a year, because of changes made “overnight” to their pension scheme.

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They will now typically be forced to wait an extra five years to get their full pensions. Some may now delay taking their pension, but for many there is no time to amend their financial plans, which means they are forced to accept a reduced pension, say campaigners.

Last November, the health and beauty retailer off-loaded its multibillion-pound final salary workplace pension scheme to insurer Legal & General, which took on its assets and liabilities. In recent years lots of big employers have been doing this to rid themselves of pension “risk” so they can concentrate on running their core business.

The Boots scheme closed to new members in 2010. The Boots Pension Support Group, an action group, reckons that there are roughly 23,000 members still to retire and start getting their pension.

The group says that for decades members were able to draw their full pension penalty-free from age 60 onwards – but Boots says this was never guaranteed and was a discretionary benefit that has now come to an end. That means members now have to wait until they are 65 to get their full pension. They can retire before that, but they will lose a chunk of their pension if they take it before they are 65.

Harding, who turns 59 this month, worked for Boots from 1992 until 2003 and was an HR officer at its base in Beeston, Nottinghamshire. She says she had always understood that she had a right to a full pension at 60 based on what had been communicated to her over the years.

She relied on this when she decided to retire last June, after which she accessed a drawdown pension pot to fund the 18 months until her full Boots pension kicked in. But a few months later she received a letter saying she would need to wait another five years for her full pension, even though she had planned her finances around the original quotes she received.

Related: Why is it becoming so hard to retire in the UK? – podcast

“My husband and I are both retired and are now hugely worried about our finances,” says Harding. “Boots was an employer and brand I had placed my trust in … Had I been made aware I could not rely on a full pension at age 60 being there for me in 2025, I would have made a different decision.”

She says Boots has not provided her with information on the financial impact of taking a reduced pension at 60, but adds: “Based on what others have been told, I expect my lump sum payment to be reduced by about £4,500, and an annual reduction to my pension of £900 – easily £30,000 in total based on average life expectancy.”

For others, the financial impact is bigger, says the action group. For some, this could cost them anything between £1,000 to £4,000 a year, in addition to the impact on the tax-free lump sum they can take.

The PDA (Pharmacists’ Defence Association) union has been investigating and said a few days ago that its initial view was that there was “no evidence to back up the [company’s] claim that an unreduced pension from age 60 was discretionary”. It indicated that the dispute may have to be settled by the Pensions Ombudsman.

In a statement, the trustee of the Boots scheme says it recognises that the change will affect members who choose to retire before the scheme’s normal retirement age (NRA). “While the trustee has in the past been able to offer enhanced early retirement terms, this has always been … on a discretionary basis. It was never something to which members were automatically entitled,” it adds. “Continuing to pay unreduced pensions for those members who choose to retire early would have made insuring the scheme with Legal & General unaffordable.”

The trustee says members can still receive their full pension, without any reduction, from the NRA, which is 65 for most members, compared with the current state retirement age of 67. It adds that some transitional arrangements have been put in place.

“The trustee has not taken this decision lightly, but in the collective interest of all members, and based on independent, professional advice, to safeguard the long-term financial security of the scheme,” the statement adds.

Legal & General says it has no input into the rules of the scheme.

‘My pension has effectively been held to ransom’

Jonathan Booth is one of about 17,000 people caught up in what some have called a scandal involving the failed retirement firm Hartley Pensions.

He is due to turn 65 in early March but says he has been “driven to the edge of despair” by the events of the past 18 months or so, adding: “I’d like to start to plan my retirement [but] I feel I’m unable to retire.”

Like many people, Booth had accumulated several pension pots during his working life, and when he spoke to a financial adviser a couple of years ago, they recommended he consolidate them into one self-invested personal pension (Sipp) run by Hartley Pensions.

His Sipp has several hundred thousand pounds in it. “These are my entire retirement savings,” says Booth, a manager at a not-for-profit organisation, who lives in Hertfordshire.

In July 2022 it was announced that Hartley Pensions had been put into administration after “regulatory breaches”, with the accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young in charge of managing its affairs and trying to find a buyer.

The firm’s financial records were a mess, so the administrators imposed a ban on people transferring their funds to other pension providers. For a while there was also concern that they could be hit with hefty charges to cover the costs of the administration.

Booth says his financial adviser told him not to worry, but he says the whole affair has caused huge stress and anxiety.

“I still can’t move my pension, and there’s no timeline to that,” he says. “I don’t feel I can retire at the moment.”

Booth says he won’t feel secure until he is able to transfer his pension to a “stable and trustworthy” provider.

Some positive news may be on the horizon for Booth and the others: UHY Hacker Young says it expects that transfers of pensions out of Hartley will begin in April, and it will shortly be writing to all pension holders to explain how this will take place.

Peter Kubik, a partner at UHY Hacker Young, says: “We appreciate that the period of administration has been a stressful one for customers.” He adds that an agreement with the Financial Services Compensation Scheme to fund the multimillion-pound costs of the administration “is a positive outcome for customers. As a result … Hartley pension holders will pay no costs for the administration.”

Your rights on pension schemes

Investing in a pension is one of the biggest financial commitments most of us will ever make, and you have rights if you are worried about your provider or it wants to make changes to your scheme.

• If you have a complaint about your personal pension, talk to your provider first. Financial firms have up to eight weeks to resolve complaints. If you are not happy with their final response, or it doesn’t reply, you can ask the Financial Ombudsman Service to investigate. This won’t cost you anything and you don’t need to pay anyone to represent you. But you need to make a complaint to the ombudsman within six months of the date on your final response letter.

• You can also contact the Pensions Ombudsman. It can help with a complaint or dispute about a workplace or personal pension scheme if you are a scheme member or beneficiary. However, the Pensions Ombudsman has seen a big increase in the number of cases it is receiving, which has led to delays – Guardian Money has heard from people who have been told it will take almost a year for their complaint to be allocated to a specialist.

• If you have concerns about your workplace scheme – for example, about missing payments, or something that makes you suspect it isn’t being run properly – you can report these to The Pensions Regulator (TPR), which protects the UK’s occupational pensions.

• If you have a pension and the provider or adviser goes out of business, you may be able to claim compensation from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). If the firm that goes bust is your pension provider, the FSCS can normally pay 100% of your claim, with no upper limit. But the rules are different if your provider was a self-invested personal pension (Sipp) operator. If a Sipp provider fails, there is normally an upper cap of £85,000 on the compensation.

• If your occupational pension scheme goes under, you may be covered by the Pension Protection Fund (PPF). This protects people with a “defined benefit” (AKA final salary) pension when their employer goes bust.

• Any complaints regarding the state pension must be referred to the Department for Work and Pensions.

• All UK employers must offer a workplace pension scheme by law. Your employer must automatically put you into the scheme and pay into your pension if you are eligible for “automatic enrolment”. It cannot, for example, encourage or force you to opt out of the scheme. Also, your employer must normally pass your contributions to your scheme or provider by the 22nd day of the month after they were deducted from your pay.

• If you are a member of a defined benefit scheme, the power to make changes should be set out in your scheme’s rules. If these rules aren’t followed, any changes might be invalid. If it’s a defined contribution (AKA money purchase) scheme, your employer must give you (or your employee rep/union etc) time to think about and comment on any changes – for example, if they want to reduce their contributions or change the provider.