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Additional protection for flexible pension consumers

Last Updated: 4 Oct 22 9 min read

Since the advent of pensions freedoms the government introduced several requirements to help protect pension consumers, as well as changes to guidance, advice and support.

Key Points

  • The government launched a new service, Guidance Guarantee, to provide pension guidance to the public
  • Firms will be required to provide appropriate retirement risk warnings to consumers accessing their pension savings
  • The Pensions Advice Allowance allows people to use £1,500, in £500 blocks on up to three occasions, from their defined contribution pension to redeem against the cost of financial advice

Why policy holder protection has been introduced

The introduction of pension flexibility in April 2015 has given greater freedom on how people access their pension savings. However, with that greater level of freedom comes a greater risk that the options individuals choose may not be suitable for their needs. Decisions on pension options have far-reaching consequences that often cannot be reversed. This is why both the Government and the Regulator have introduced additional requirements in respect of consumer protection.

Guidance Guarantee

The government wants everyone approaching retirement to have access to some assistance to work out the options available and the consequences of their actions. Initially ‘approaching retirement’ was defined as ‘age 55 and above’. This age was reduced to 50 (in July 2015) and above. Please note that it is guidance that is being provided by money helper (using the Pension Wise banner),  not advice; the guidance will not tell people what to do but help them to understand the choices they have and potentially identify the number of options which they may want to consider.

Firms regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) are required to include a clear and prominent statement about guidance in communications to customers about retirement, and to recommend that they seek guidance or advice FCA Policy Statement PS14/17

The Pension Wise service provides a free  45 – 60 minute conversation with a pension expert who helps customers understand their retirement options.

The ‘five stage process’ of guidance that the client can expect will be: 

  • Set the scope, purpose and limitations of the service
  • Request information about the consumer's pension entitlement
  • Request information about the consumer's financial and personal circumstances and objectives
  • Discuss relevant options based on the information provided, including the key facts and consequences for the options, and other issues for consumer to consider
  • Set out next steps, and signpost to further sources of information, guidance or advice.

A record of the interaction will be provided that sets out the relevant options, key facts, and consequences of each of the options and will include information on ‘what to do next’.

The guidance given under this service may be sufficient for some people to come to an informed decision, however, in many cases it will highlight the need for the client to seek further, regulated, advice.

Provision for the guidance service is in the Pension Schemes Act 2015 (section 47 and Schedule 3).

Second Line of Defence – Risk warnings

In addition to the above, the Financial Conduct Authority has introduced a second line of defence to protect consumers. From April 2015 firms operating personal pensions, stakeholder pensions, selling pension decumulation products or facilitating the access of pension savings on an execution-only basis, must comply with the rules. These affect all consumers who have contract-based or occupational trust-based DC pension funds.

Firms are required to give appropriate retirement risk warnings to consumers accessing their pension savings. Firms must ask the consumer relevant questions, based on how the consumer wants to access their pension savings, to determine whether risk factors are present. If they are, risk warnings must be given.

The retirement risk warnings must be given to the consumer regardless of whether they have already received guidance from Pension Wise or taken regulated advice.

"These warnings may include setting out options the consumer has, such as shopping around. FCA states "We think that these retirement risk warnings can be given without providing regulated advice; we are not requiring firms to tell consumers what to do or implying that the consumer's decision will be wrong. We are simply requiring firms to ensure the consumer is aware of the risks of the course of action they are seeking to take." (FCA Policy Statement 15/4 - issued 27/02/15).

Firms will be required to personalise the warnings to the individual’s circumstances and the choice they are making, by asking a series of questions and actively engaging with the customer (rather than by reading out a scripted statement). Areas that need to be covered include:

The following represents core expectations based on how consumers access their pension savings.

How A Consumer May Access Their Pension Savings

Risk Factor

Pension annuity
  • Consumer health
  • Whether the consumer has a partner or dependants
  • The effects of inflation
  • Whether the consumer has shopped around
  • Loss of any guarantees

Uncrystallised funds pension lump sum (UFPLS)

  • Tax implications
  • Sustainability of income in retirement
  • Charges (if the consumer intends to invest their pension savings)
  • Debt
  • Impact on means-tested benefits
  • Investment scams

Drawdown pension

  • Tax implications
  • Sustainability of income in retirement
  • Charges (if the consumer intends to invest their pension savings)
  • Debt
  • Impact on means-tested benefits
  • Investment scams
  • Whether the consumer has shopped around

Other (other products that may develop or could be used by consumers to access their pension saving)

  • Risk factors relevant to how the consumer has decided to access their pension savings

Expanding on these risk factors:

Risk Factor

Examples Of What The Firm Is Trying To Find Out

Risk Warning Required?

Consumer's state of health

Are there aspects of the consumer's health or lifestyle that would make them potentially eligible for a better value annuity – for example, an enhanced annuity?

If yes or unclear, give risk warning

Loss of guarantees

Will the consumer lose any guarantees attached to the pension?

If yes or unclear, give risk warning

Whether the consumer has a partner or dependants

Does the consumer have a partner or dependents who might benefit from a joint life annuity (where they are not already purchasing one)?

If yes, give risk warning


If the consumer is seeking to buy a level annuity, do they understand that inflation will erode the real value of the income they receive from their annuity?

If no or unclear, give risk warning

Whether the consumer has shopped around

Has the consumer shopped around different providers before choosing to buy the product?

If no or unclear, give risk warning

Sustainability of income in retirement

Is the consumer expecting the money they take from the pension to help provide an income in retirement?

If yes or unclear, give risk warning

Tax implications

Does the consumer understand the tax implications of taking money from their pension savings?

If no or unclear, give risk warning

Charges (if a consumer intends to invest their pension savings)

Has the consumer considered how the charges they may face when investing their pension savings elsewhere compare with those on their pension savings?

If no or unclear, give risk warning

Impact on means-tested benefits

Is the consumer aware that taking money from their pension may impact on any means-tested benefits they receive?

If no or unclear, give risk warning


Is the consumer aware that creditors may have a call on any money taken from pension savings?

If no or unclear, give risk warning

Investment scams

Is the consumer aware that investment scams exist, and that they should be careful where they invest money taken from their pension savings?

If no or unclear, give risk warning

Following consultation inCP15/30 ‘Pension Reforms, policy statement 15/4 and confirmed in PS16-12 – the FCA have confirmed that firms are best placed to identify the relevant risks for their customers and being more prescriptive would risk making the process and consumer journey ridged and turning it into a tick box exercise. Furthermore, standardised statements would go against the policy intention of engaging customers. When deciding how best to engage the consumer, including which medium to use to deliver the warnings, firms should consider not just the business need but also what works best for their customer.

Pensions Advice Allowance

On 3 February 2017, the government announced a £1,500 limit, to be accessed in £500 blocks on up to three occasions would be available from April 2017, but can only be used once in a tax year. There will be no age restrictions, and consumers will be able to use this allowance to pay for robo-advice as well as face-to-face services. The allowance will not be available to defined benefit pension holders but can be accessed by those in hybrid schemes as long as they have a defined contribution element. The tax-free amount would be in addition to the tax free lump sum available when benefits are ultimately taken.

Pension Scams

Pensions fraud can be devastating, leaving victims without the means to fund their retirement. Since January 2019 unsolicited calls about members pensions are illegal and companies breaking this rule can face fines of up to £500,000.

The FCA have also launched ScamSmart to help individuals avoid pension (and investment) scams. The FCA website provides access to a list of firms to avoid.

Drawdown investment pathways

The FCA deemed too many non-advised drawdown customers were investing mainly in Cash funds without understanding how this affected their potential for fund growth.

FCA Policy Statement 19/21 tells drawdown providers that from 1 February 2021 they must offer default investment pathways for consumers who enter drawdown without taking regulated advice.

Investment pathways will be based on certain criteria, eg within the next 5 years does the member plan to;

  • leave their fund untouched?
  • start taking a long-term regular income?
  • use the fund to buy an annuity?
  • take the full amount of pension fund?

Only one pathway can be offered per option for a client (although these can be tailored to clients age). For example not all clients’ selecting option 1 may be offered the same fund(s) for that pathway, this could allow for target dated funds based on a client’s age.

Whilst there is an easement for smaller companies, larger companies  must offer at least 2 of the 4 pathways to customers. Large companies will to refer consumers to another provider’s pathway solutions for any objectives for which they don’t themselves provide a pathway solution.

The aim being that a consumer can only invest mainly in Cash if they take an active decision to do so.

Investment in Cash risk warnings

Another step towards making Cash an active investment decision is that providers will have 6 months from the date FCA rules come into force to assess their clients and provide risk warnings where necessary.

Risk warnings must be provided to;

  • non-advised consumers moving funds into drawdown or requesting a drawdown transfer, and
  • non-advised consumers already in drawdown,

where more than 50% of the total drawdown pot is invested in cash (including cash-like assets).

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