Ark Pension Schemes

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) on securing the debate and on setting out his case so clearly and with such forensic skill, which has been a characteristic of his role as a Member of Parliament for some 36 years.
 
As the right hon. Gentleman outlined, the Ark pension schemes are a number of schemes that were administered by Ark Business Consulting. The schemes operated a pensions reciprocation plan that involved loans being paid between schemes and their respective members. That was on the basis that members could access a proportion of their pension savings without breaching tax rules intended to ensure that members access their tax-relieved pension savings only from age 55, under a practice known as pension liberation.
 
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of concerns about the tax implications for individuals involved in the schemes. It might help if I set out the tax rules in a little more detail before turning to the particular points he raised. Tax relief is provided on pensions savings with the expectation that the funds are used by the member to provide benefits later in life. The tax rules therefore set out the various payments that a pension scheme is authorised to make to, or on behalf of, a member. They include payments of authorised benefits—pensions and lump sums—as well as such payments as transfers to another registered pension scheme. To be an authorised payment, these benefits cannot be paid before the minimum pension age, currently 55.
 
Where payments are made that are not authorised, they are classed as “unauthorised payments” and are subject to certain tax charges. These charges are intended to recover the tax relief previously given on the savings, as they have not been used as intended by the tax rules. Where savings are taken before age 55, this is an “unauthorised payment” and tax charges will apply. A loan made to a member from a registered pension in connection with their pension savings is also an “unauthorised payment”. This guarantees fairness to the taxpayer and ensures that pensions are not simply used as a tax-efficient savings tool. HMRC is looking into whether the payments made to the members of the Ark schemes are authorised by the tax rules.
 
The tax position in relation to the Ark pension schemes is by no means straightforward. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether, if the loans are repaid, they can be treated for tax purposes as though they had never happened. That is not the case, as loans are “payments” for the purposes of the tax legislation under consideration, whether or not they are repaid. He asked why we cannot return to the status quo ante. To do otherwise than treat loans as “payments” would enable people to withdraw funds early from their pension pots without any tax implications, and then return them to their pension pots at some point in the future if they so wished, with no consequences. Clearly, we do not want to encourage that type of speculative behaviour. The rules essentially comply with the principles that have been in place since tax relief was introduced many years ago.
 
Mr Straw: Of course I accept, as does, I think, everyone in this House, that if we are going to have arrangements by which people are able to save up for their retirement and to gain tax advantages in doing so, we cannot, in principle, have a situation where, in advance of their retirement age, they can simply pick and choose what they take out of the scheme, or not. However, does the Minister recognise the inequity of the fact that my constituent, who has acted in good faith, has been the victim of circumstances where he believed that what was happening was lawful—as indeed, at the time, it was—and accept that, in the special circumstances in which he finds himself, arrangements ought to be made by which he can return to the status quo ante, because otherwise he will suffer a huge penalty for no benefit?
 
Mr Gauke: The right hon. Gentleman puts his constituent’s case very well. In the situation as he describes it, it is hard not to be sympathetic to an individual placed in that position. However, the law is very clear that a loan payment of this sort constitutes a “payment”, and certain consequences follow. I take his point, and this may well be a hard case. The challenge arises if we have a situation whereby people are able at least to attempt to access some of their pension pot, and then subsequently find, for one reason or another, that that was not the right thing to do. However, simply putting them in the position they were in to begin with is, to use a snooker term, a bit of a shot to nothing. Although this might be unfair—I am sure that it is—on the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent, others who are acting in not quite such a degree of good faith might attempt to liberate, as it were, their pension in the hope that it does not get picked up, and in the knowledge that if it does, they are in no worse a situation. That is one of the challenges that a Government of any description would face, and that is why the law in this area has been tightly drawn for many years.
 
In the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, he asked when the matter might be settled so that he could provide some certainty for his constituent. I fear that I cannot provide such certainty about when the tax position will be settled. This is a complex case, and it may ultimately be for the tax tribunal to determine the correct tax position. Until that has been determined, it will not be possible for HMRC to settle the specific case, and that timetable is not within the control of HMRC. I have asked HMRC when it anticipates dealing with this case, but given that it will have to go to a tribunal, HMRC is not willing to provide a precise date.
 
The Government have a duty, not least to the taxpayer, to apply the legislation fairly and consistently in line with statutory provisions. Where a liability to tax arises, the normal rules in relation to interest accruing on any outstanding tax charge apply. Existing arrangements that allow individuals to get more time to pay or to pay their tax bill in instalments will be available to help those who want to use them.
 
On the specific case, in May 2011, the Pensions Regulator decided to appoint Dalriada Trustees Ltd as the independent trustee of the Ark pension schemes. It did so because it was satisfied that the interests of scheme members were at risk due to the schemes being used for pension liberation. Under trust law, Dalriada has a duty to act in the best interests of the members. I am sure that it will seek to locate as much of the scheme’s funds as possible, and to recover assets wherever it is reasonable and proportionate to do so, bearing in mind that the standard practice is for the costs of investigating and recovering assets to be met from member funds.
 
On the right hon. Gentleman’s third question, there are responsibilities on Dalriada as the trustee to ensure that its actions are proportionate and that the pension funds of Ark members are not frittered away. None the less, it faces a challenge in recovering the assets. I suspect that Dalriada as the trustee is better placed to give an estimate of the risks of legal costs substantially diminishing the pension pot in the Ark scheme.
 
The right hon. Gentleman has raised the concern that Ark scheme members entered the arrangements in good faith. As I have mentioned, Dalriada was appointed because the schemes were suspected of being involved in pension liberation. He will doubtless be aware that pension liberation is a threat to individuals’ hard-earned pensions savings. It occurs where a scheme is set up to enable someone to access their pensions savings early—usually before age 55. Scheme promoters often fail to tell people about the tax consequences of accessing their pension savings early, and promoters often charge high fees. In some cases, people are promised cash if they invest their pension funds in esoteric investments, on which a high return is promised, and people unfortunately often lose all their pension savings in those cases.
 
Some products claim to unlock, liberate or provide early access to pension savings without giving rise to tax charges. That is not true: anyone receiving money from their pension scheme before the age of 55 will normally be subject to tax charges aimed at recovering tax reliefs. It is therefore vital for individuals to recognise the danger of entering into such schemes. If they choose to access their pensions savings early, they need to be aware of the tax charges and risks. HMRC is continuing to take action in pursuit of those who deliberately bend or break the rules by offering schemes to liberate pensions savings. That is part of a continuous strategy to combat pension liberation, as is the ongoing review of pension tax legislation. The Government will not hesitate to make further changes if necessary.
 
Mr Straw: It may be that the Minister is coming to my fourth question, but I would be grateful to know whether it is correct, as my constituent claims, that Ark held out that it was regulated by HMRC and the Pensions Regulator. If that is correct, does he believe that any responsibility for the fact that the scheme was advertised in that way rests with those two regulators?
 
Mr Gauke: I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that I will turn to his fourth question in a moment, but before I do I hope it will be helpful if I first say a little more about what HMRC is doing in this area, and then I will deal with his question directly.
 
In addition to the measures I have mentioned, HMRC has been working extremely closely with partner agencies—the Pensions Regulator, the Financial Services Authority and the Serious Fraud Office—to detect, disrupt and deter promoters, and to warn people of the dangers of entering into these schemes. Although HMRC and its partners are taking action to raise awareness of potential threats, the Ark case highlights the need for people to be on their guard against promises of tax loopholes, offers of unrealistic investment returns, or other dubious advice linked to their pension pot or cash lump sums. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Individuals need to consider carefully what is on offer and whether it is appropriate to their circumstances, and ensure they have carried out sufficient due diligence, taking professional advice as they deem necessary.
 
The right hon. Gentleman asks whether the Ark pension schemes were registered with HMRC, and I confirm that they were. As he will appreciate, it is difficult to know at the point an application for registration is received whether any particular pension scheme will ultimately be misused, but that is not to say that the Government should be complacent. Changes have recently been made to the process for registering a new pension scheme with HMRC to make the system more robust and disrupt any fraudulent intentions.
 
Legislation in last year’s Finance Act provided greater powers to check that pension schemes are being set up for the genuine provision of retirement benefits, and to impose penalties where wrongdoing is identified. That includes a “fit and proper person” test for those running the pension schemes applying for registration. Essentially, these changes provide stronger powers for existing pension schemes to be deregistered, or for new schemes to be refused registration where there are concerns.
 
HMRC’s role is to ensure that the tax system is being complied with. It is not there to perform a role of consumer protection, but to ensure that pensions are not liberated, and we have made a number of changes in recent months to strengthen its powers in that area. As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate I cannot discuss individual cases, but I assure him that HMRC continues to ensure that the tax rules are applied fairly and consistently, that it will continue to pursue those behind pension liberation schemes, and that the British taxpayer continues to get a fair deal.
 

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