Covid-19: How the role of scheme secretary is pivotal in managing scheme risks
By Tina Rushworth, Senior Pensions Consultant
The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is far-reaching, impacting on businesses of all sizes and sectors.
Under the current environment, the role of the scheme secretary is vitally important in ensuring that practical steps are taken to get schemes and trustees ready for every eventuality.
A good scheme secretary is one that can positively influence the managing of risks trustees face.
Pension schemes rely on a flourishing sponsor, and so, at this time, trustees will be considering what they can do to help their sponsor whilst also protecting their members.
Having been scheme secretary to the Carillion group of schemes during their high profile insolvency case, I have reflected on the lessons I learnt from that time and how they can be applied now to prepare schemes as best as possible for potential challenges they may face.
Most importantly for governance, a scheme secretary must clearly record trustee considerations, decisions and actions in real time, including referencing specialist advice received so it can be found later.
Vitally, the scheme secretary must consider that regulators and the public may be reading their minutes and records later down the line.
For the chair of trustees it is invaluable to have a scheme secretary who can think ahead to brief them and notify them of any potential challenges they foresee.
The chair must have confidence that the scheme secretary has matters under control and they must work in tandem, as a double act, to find solutions to any issues they may face.
In my experience, the top things a scheme secretary can do to help mitigate risk at times like these includes ensuring that contingency plans have been put in place early, covering all the important areas. These will be individual to each situation but there are some threads which are common to most cases. Existing good practice makes it easier to implement these plans and they need to be kept under review as the situation develops and kept up to date with the latest guidance from The Pensions Regulator (TPR).
Furthermore, considering how trustee meetings can be run is key. Even before Covid-19 it was not always possible to run face-to-face meetings for trustees spread across the country, nor if they need to meet within an hour. The trust deed needs checking to ensure that electronic meetings and electronic decision making are possible and valid.
Scheme secretaries should ensure that trustee meeting agendas prioritise the important issues – integrated risk management is key.
There should also be checks that the trustees have the relevant skills – financial restructuring is a specialist area and having trustees who understand this specialism helps. This may mean discussing with the sponsor whether the trustees would benefit from having a specialist independent trustee. You may need to arrange specialist trustee training to cope with insolvency or restructuring issues – and perceived or actual conflict issues. In restructuring, sponsor appointed trustees may not always be able to give information for obvious reasons. Potential conflicts need to be meticulously considered by the trustee board and a record kept of how they were resolved.
It is important to ascertain whether the secretary has enough support – and whether there is extra resource that can be made available potentially at short notice. Identify at what stage this will be needed. If necessary, get external help. It may seem expensive – but the alternative will prove more so.
Lastly, having a secretary who has a risk averse mind-set, a delivery focus, able to prioritise and have a willingness to go the extra mile will make all the difference in getting through the crisis.
17 Jun 2020